Fire prevention grant awards are off mark

Shifting money from rural departments to national organizations harms the intent and function of fire-prevention grant funding


I have never been one who is quick to jump to conclusions or make statements without having all the facts. I have a very long fuse that usually burns out before it gets to the powder keg.

This probably comes from serving 15 years as fire chief in a volunteer department. Anyone who has worn the white hat understands exactly what I mean.

During the past few weeks I have celebrated FEMA Friday probably like the rest of you. If you're asking yourself 'Did I miss a new national holiday' the answer is … well not really.

FEMA Friday is the title a number of us have given to every Friday that FEMA releases an award announcement for AFG, SAFER or FP&S grants.

Usually about 9 a.m. I start checking the award list on FEMA's website. Then around noon, if a list hasn't posted I start to get phone calls from other grant junkies asking if I have any idea why nothing has posted yet.

This AFG season has been particularly hard on us grant junkies because there were Fridays with announcements and Fridays without announcements.

Two priorities
One thing that started to bother me a few weeks back was the number of large awards being given to national organizations for fire prevention programs under the FP&S grant. For 2014 FEMA had $34 million to grant under the FP&S program.

A portion of this funding is delegated for research programs. The balance targets fire prevention activities. To date, almost $12 million, or 35 percent of FP&S funding, has gone to national organizations for fire prevention programs.

Under the 2014 FP&S Funding Opportunity Announcement the following are listed as the top two priorities for FP&S funding.

"According to data available to FEMA and the USFA, working smoke alarms greatly reduce the risk of fire casualties for the nation's residents. Therefore, under this category there are two (2) priorities. The first priority will be given to programs that target a specific high risk population to conduct both door-to-door smoke alarm installations and provide home safety inspections, as part of a comprehensive home fire safety campaign. The comprehensive home fire safety campaign should also include an educational program that is delivered to the occupant at the time of the installation and inspection. The second priority will be given to programs that include sprinkler awareness that affect the entire community in this effort, such as educating the public about residential sprinklers, promoting residential sprinklers, and demonstrating working models of residential sprinklers. Installation of sprinkler systems is only eligible if proposed as part of a sprinkler demonstration/educational effort."

Boxed out
I have absolutely nothing against regional programs where several fire department take a collaborative approach to fire prevention, because the goal of the FP&S grant is being achieved.

I am having a real problem with understanding how giving the National Association of Associations located in Big City, USA $1.5 million to conduct a fire prevention program actually translates into a door-to-door smoke alarm installation and home safety inspection in rural Pumpkin Ridge, Pa. I don't believe it ever does.

I'm sure the president of the National Association of Associations will defend their program by saying we are going to make smoke alarms and fire prevention bags available to all of our members.

There is that word members. Home many fire departments are members of your organization? Do you charge a fee for membership? Has FEMA, by giving a grant to this organization, now inadvertently helped their membership recruiting campaign?

We can debate these questions, but the real problem is the small rural departments are being boxed out of the FP&S program almost like the big-box retailers have knocked out the local mom-and-pop stores. Giving support to a local fire prevention program has countless benefits.

Slice of the pie
It allows the local department to build a stronger relationship with the residents of its coverage area. I have watched the faces of kindergarten students as a fire prevention program is presented and coloring books are passed out.

I have watched the faces of 85-year-old great grandmothers as the fire department stops by their home to install new smoke alarms and they ask if the firefighters want a piece of apple pie just baked today. I have also watched the face of community members who realize that their fire department is such an integral part of their community and they want to join to be a part of it.

Those of us who have been around the fire service for more than a year or two can all relate to these examples because we have all experienced them first hand as we deliver fire prevention programs.

Please don't let fire prevention evolve into another mega conglomeration that will advertise a toll free number to distribute free smoke alarms. Then, when you call the number you are placed on hold listening to terrible music for the next 32 minutes.

National organizations have their place. If they are allowed to compete for FP&S funding, then there should be a percentage of FP&S funding set aside only for national programs. This would allow competition for the balance of funds to be guaranteed to local departments.

This way grandma doesn't have to call someone thousands of miles away to get a free smoke alarm and then have someone explain to her what YouTube is so she can watch the installation video. 

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