By Jerry Brant
Toward the end of last month, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security approved the Fiscal Year 2011 spending bill for Homeland Security. Of most interest to us is the major development that would fund both the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant Program at $420 million.
This represents a $30 million increase for AFG over the FY 2010 figure and a $115 million increase over the administration's proposed budget amount for FY 2011. Funding for SAFER remains the same as last year's figure but it is actually a $115 million increase over the president's proposed level of $305 million. In addition, the bill contains $45.9 million for the United States Fire Administration, a slight increase over last year's figure.
AFG was first established by Title XVII of the FY 2001 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L.106-398). Currently the program provides direct financial assistance in the form of grants to local fire departments and unaffiliated Emergency Medical Services to help fund a variety of equipment, vehicle, training, and other firefighter related and EMS needs. From 2001 to 2008 more than $4.25 billion was distributed to local departments and EMS agencies through the program.
The SAFER Grant Program was first authorized in FY 2005 and has allocated a total of $479 million over the first three years of the program. This year it saw a dramatic increase in funding from $210 million the previous year to $420 million for FY 2010. SAFER funding can be utilized by fire departments for hiring new firefighters, for rehiring laid off firefighters and for recruiting and retention programs.
Almost since its inception 10 years ago, there have been constant critics who have attempted to cut or do away with the AFG program completely. To me AFG is one of the few federal programs that has a two sided benefit to it. The program has provided equipment, vehicles, communication systems, turnout gear, SCBA, training and other benefits to departments that never would have been able to afford them on their own. It has helped to stabilize our country's fire and rescue capabilities. Notice I said stabilize and not increase, because there are still far too many unmet needs at fire departments and EMS agencies across this country.
The second benefit of the AFG program is that of economic development. The program helps to retain and provide jobs to the thousands of people across this country that work to build, transport, advertize, and sell the fire equipment and vehicles that this program funds.
The SAFER program has also been beneficial to career, combination and volunteer departments. It has helped departments to fill positions that probably would have been eliminated in this tough economic climate and it has helped volunteer departments to develop programs to retain and recruit desperately needed members.
Need to be equipped
Some would argue that these programs are not necessary and that the provision of fire and EMS services are a local responsibility, and not that of the federal government. But in today's world of constant threats, fire and EMS departments across our country need to be properly equipped and trained to respond to WMD, CBRN, and other potential mass casualty situations.
In addition, with the highly mobile society that we have today, people can be a thousand miles away from their home tomorrow on vacation or a business trip and need the services of a fire or EMS department. They would want that department to be responding with the latest equipment, technology and training and not have to worry about its capabilities to answer their call for help.
The action of the subcommittee is a bold move and sends a message that Congress realizes the importance that fire and EMS agencies play in the protection of this country's vital resources. The subcommittee's bill will now be considered by the full House Appropriations Committee. Following approval by the committee, it will be considered by the full House. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not taken action on the Homeland Security Bill.
Once both houses of Congress have approved their respective spending bills, they will still need to resolve any differences before sending the final bill to the White House for the president's signature. Please make time in your busy schedule to contact your Senator or Representative and tell them the important role that the AFG and SAFER programs play in assisting your department and firefighters across this nation. We will keep you updated as this bill proceeds through Congress.