What sequestration means to the fire service

Elected officials can still get their act together and pull us out of this mess; if not, here's what to expect

I was really hoping that Congress and the President would pull a rabbit out of their collective hat and bring forth a deal that avoided the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. That, of course, didn't happen.

And as frustrated as many of us are with our elected officials' inability to solve problems, we are left figuring out what these cuts mean to the fire service. To be clear, many say the effects are extremely unclear at this time.

The news is teeming with reports of impending flight delays, an increased risk in terrorism as the FBI won't be able to foil as many plots, and the Department of Defense saying the cuts will hurt its military branches. All due to the days-old sequestration.

In a nutshell, Congress was charged with enacting fiscal legislation to reduce the budget deficit by March 1. Without legislation, $85 billion in automatic spending cuts went into effect for the remainder of this fiscal year — $1.2 trillion in total over the next 10 years.

If a deal can be reached before the end of this fiscal year, the sequestration goes away.

Good news, bad news on grants
For the fire service, the good news is that 2012 grants should not be affected. Fire departments that were awarded grant money for this year can expect to receive it, according to an analysis by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

If staff at U.S. Fire Administration and FEMA are furloughed, expect more delays in getting answers from those agencies about grants or applications.

The real problem, says Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Service Institute, isn't so much the sequestration as it is the impending expiration of the federal government's budget. That deadline is March 27.

How Congress handles that situation could impact grants and funding for USFA. If Congress enacts another continuing resolution, grant and USFA funding levels will be frozen at their 2012 level.

With USFA and the National Fire Academy already operating at bare-bones, a continuing resolution would mean continued pain for those departments, Webb said.

"USFA's budget has been cut time and time again — there's no meat left on its bones," Webb said. "Any additional cuts — whether the result of sequestration, the administration's FY2014 budget proposal or appropriations legislation — will have a deleterious impact USFA's and NFA's mission."

Congress could enact what's called an omnibus bill. This, Webb said, would give them more flexibility for how money is spent on grant programs.

Of course, they could simply do nothing, which would force the federal government to shut down. That would be really bad, and cynicism aside, it doesn't seem that they'd let a shutdown happen.

Avoiding trouble
Both houses of Congress are working on legislation to avoid the shutdown and it is likely that any law passed will address the $85 billion in cuts this year. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he won't force a shutdown.

If the sequestration continues, it will slap a big question mark on 2013 SAFER and AFG programs. IAFF says that it expects less grant money would be available and that the application period would be delayed.

This delay and reduction could spell trouble for fire departments that hired or rehired after layoffs firefighters using SAFER grants set to expire in 2013. With the ability to renew those grants up in the air, IAFF is urging fire departments in that position to seek alternative funding.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs calculates the impact to 2013 grants will be cut by as much as $117 million, based on 5 percent program funding cuts. IAFC also says to expect USFA's budget to be cut by $2 million, and $163 million cut from wildland fire agencies — $125 million from U.S. Forest Service and $38 million from Department of Interior.

The pay rate for federal firefighters is one of the areas that cannot be touched by the sequestration cuts. However, these firefighters may be subject to furloughs, which will mean forced unpaid days off. IAFF says it is unclear yet how the furloughs will affect federal firefighters.

IAFC says that Medicare will cut its reimbursement by 2 percent beginning April 1.

Congress and the President have a chance before the month's end to solve both the sequestration problem and the larger problem of funding the government for the next seven months. If they can pull off that trick, it should be back to business as normal.

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