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Editor's Note
by Rick Markley, editor-in-chief

Grants and greed: Joyrides on a $1M fireboat

The $1 million boat is a great lesson in the importance of separating need from want when it's time to apply for grants

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

Can you picture it, that iconic scene of teenage brothers at the dinner table? Each loads his plates full and eats as fast as he can; if he doesn't, someone else at the table will eat the remaining food.

It's grab what you can before it's all gone. Watch your fingers.

That's the first image that popped in my head as I read about the Pennsylvania volunteer fire department that was shut down in part over a $1 million boat it owned. The boat came by way of a federal anti-terror grant but was rigged with firefighting equipment, including a sonar system that was never installed.

There were reports that the boat did little more than go for joy rides and had even gotten into a bang up or two. The department has been reinstated and plans to dispose of the boat, dubbed 'the bear on the Delaware,' are under way.

Shooting fish in a barrel
It would be too easy to sit back and take pot shots at a volunteer department that struggles to find enough members to respond, yet tools around the Delaware River in million-dollar vessel. Can you imagine the great suntans they and their spouses get while tracking down enemy combatants?

And it would be too easy to take pot shots at the feds who approved a $1 million grant for this boat. Can you imagine a room full of chimpanzees stuffed into business suits and green-shade visors running amok with a rubber 'approved' stamp and ink pad?

But pot shots don't solve problems. And I suspect their value as a preventive measure — a shaming agent similar to publishing the names and addresses of 'Johns' popped in prostitution stints — is not that great either.

Clearly, FEMA needs to take a hard look at the types of grants it is approving. In the grand scheme of it, a million bucks may not seem like a lot, but it is. It's a lot because that money could have put two brand new fire trucks on the street or several firefighters on the job.

FEMA needs to sort out this problem; the American people don't need another reason to be cynical about their federal government.

Doing our part
But regardless of what happens in D.C., the real burden of fixing this problem falls to the fire service, and it falls to each individual fire department.

Unlike the ravenous pack of brothers viciously stabbing at the last morsels of meat, our dinner table is much larger. It is so large, in fact, that we cannot see all of the fire department seated at it, or how emaciated they may be.

Yet like the table set for those hungry brothers, our food bowls, or pool of grant money, is finite. For this reason, we must self-police.

The notion of 30,000-plus fire departments taking only the grant money they need to ensure there is enough left to supply the other departments may seem Utopian.

But when done right, self-policing is more effective and desirable than external regulations — say, in the form of a more burdensome grant process that leaves many needy departments without resources.

Self-policing means each fire department must separate needs from wants and consider the good of the whole when submitting grant applications. Department leaders need to be willing to forgo a desired 100-foot aerial or that $1 million anti-terrorist boat.

At the end of the day, it is an issue of ethics. Can we, as individual fire departments, behave ethically so that the entire fire service can be safer and more effective? That's where the rubber meets the road; that's where talk of brotherhood is differentiated from actions of brotherhood.

Rather than take pot shots at a small volunteer department or a large bureaucracy, we need to examine our own behavior and adjust accordingly.

Where the gluttonous brothers can engage in sibling rivalry at the dinner table, our brotherhood needs to keep its appetite in check.

We are, after all, our brothers' keeper.




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