At the beginning of April, the wheels of our federal government almost came to a grinding halt. Days of negotiation between administration officials and leaders of the House and Senate averted a complete government shutdown.
As the budget negotiations took place, those of us in the fire service anxiously awaited the fate of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program (AFG) and related Homeland Security funding.
When the smoke cleared, and a 2011 Federal Budget was finally announced, the AFG program was able to secure a $15 million increase in funding. This increase came at the expense of the SAFER program, which was cut by $15 million.
Given the budget-cutting climate in DC, the major fire service programs fared OK. Looking back at the situation, we can look to the fact that several thousand firefighters just happened to be in DC that week for the Congressional Fire Services Institute's annual national fire & emergency services dinner & seminars
A large number made their way up to Capitol Hill and spoke to their senators and representatives about the state of the fire service in our nation, which can only have helped our cause when they began budget discussions.
Where we stand now
However, memories in DC have historically been very short. Once again we find ourselves in a situation where fire service-related programs are under attack as Congress begins the 2012 Federal Budget process.
On Thursday, May 12, the House Appropriations Committee released a draft of the fiscal year 2012 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill. It provides $40.6 billion in funding for the Department of Homeland Security, a decrease of $1.1 billion (2.6 percent) from the Fiscal Year 2011 level and $3 billion below the Administration's request.
The draft bill makes significant cuts to several programs of importance to the fire and emergency services. AFG and SAFER would be funded at a total of $350 million ($200 million for AFG and $150 million for SAFER). The programs were funded at $810 million ($405 million for each) in Fiscal Year 2011.
The United States Fire Administration's budget would be cut by more than $3 million. The draft legislation provides only $42.5 million for USFA, down from nearly $45.6 million.
This is only the first step in a rather long and complicated budget process but it should serve as a wake-up call to the fire service. For years I have been preaching that we need to make the public and our elected officials aware of the crisis looming in the fire service:
- Fire departments respond to more than 25 million calls every year. This represents an increase of more than 40 percent over the past decade.
- According to the USFA, there are an estimated 69,300 engines and 6,700 aerial devices in the United States. Thirty-two percent of this apparatus is 20 years or older. (In most states, these vehicles could be registered as antiques)
- Only 25 percent of the departments in this nation can communicate at incident scenes with other federal, state, and local first responders.
Our message needs to be very clear to our representatives in the House and Senate: "Now is not the time to cut funding to our nation's fire service."
Even though the budget process is a cumbersome, time-consuming process, we must act quickly and send this message to our members of Congress.
To do so I recommend that you communicate with them by either email or phone. If you choose, you can send your comments by regular mail but remember that all mail going to government agencies is screened and can be delayed for days as it goes through this process.
To email your member of the United States House of Representatives, go to www.House.gov and select the "Write Your Representative" category from this menu.
This will take you to a page that includes options for contacting your representative. To contact your senator, go to www.Senate.gov and scroll down the list of senators to find their contact information.
Some things to remember:
1. Remember to be polite and respectful
2. Be concise in your remarks
3. Stick to only one topic
4. Please include any examples of how AFG and/or SAFER has helped your department
5. Stress the need to keep funding for AFG and SAFER at the 2011 levels
Please take a moment to do this today, either by phone or email, before it is too late and we lose these valuable programs. Remember there are 1,148,000 firefighters across this nation and Congress needs to hear from each one of us!