2020 budget brings additional grant opportunities

The federal budget includes increased funding for AFG, SAFER and VFA, plus resources for the National Firefighter Registry and more


In December 2019, Congress passed the 2020 Federal Budget. The legislation was signed into law by President Trump, funding the federal government through the end of the fiscal year.

The bills, H.R. 1865 and H.R. 1158, include increases in federal spending for existing grant programs and funding for a new rural EMS grant program that was authorized in 2018. The budget also includes funding for additional fire and EMS programs.

AFG and SAFER

A firefighter crosses Highway 154 while battling the Cave Fire in Los Padres National Forest, Calif., above Santa Barbara on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
A firefighter crosses Highway 154 while battling the Cave Fire in Los Padres National Forest, Calif., above Santa Barbara on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The 2020 budget contains $355 million each for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) programs, up from $350 million each in Fiscal Year (FY) 2019.

Before we start to pat ourselves on the back, the cost of living increased 2.8% for 2019. That means AFG and SAFER would have to be increased by $9.8 million just to keep pace with increasing cost of equipment – and that’s basically exactly what happened. The programs now have $10 million more for 2020.

For additional context, the two programs reached their height in funding in 2009, when their total appropriation was $985 million. The programs experienced their lowest funding in 2013 when they were allocated $642 million. Even though both AFG and SAFER received increases over the past two years, these programs are nowhere near the funding levels of 11 years ago.

Volunteer Fire Assistance

Included in the 2020 budget is $18 million for the Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grant program – an increase of $1 million from FY 2019.   

VFA provides 50/50 matching grants to combination and volunteer fire departments protecting communities with populations of 10,000 or fewer residents to prepare to respond to wildland fires. The funding can be used for planning activities, wildland training and to purchase equipment.

Siren Grant

The Siren grant program is allocated $5 million in this year’s budget. The program was to be funded $20 million per year through FY 2023; however, Congress only appropriated $5 million for 2020.

The program focuses on serving rural communities that often experience issues such as drug overdose, large populations of aging citizens and insufficient budgets. The award covers a variety of programs, such as training and educating EMS personnel, obtaining and maintaining necessary licensing and certifications, and equipment purchases. The Siren Act also supports the recruitment and retention of EMS personnel, both paid and volunteer, to serve rural communities more efficiently. It emphasizes the importance of establishing innovative methods to advance and educate emergency healthcare providers through technology-enhanced methods.

National Firefighter Registry to track cancer cases

Also in this year’s spending plan is $2.5 million for the National Firefighter Registry. The Registry was created by Congress in 2018 and is being developed by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

The Registry will collect occupational information about firefighters on a voluntary basis. It will connect that information with data from state cancer registries to document firefighter cancer cases.

For years, firefighter trade associations pushed for establishment of the registry to assist in verifying the number of firefighters who are contracting and dying from cancer. It has been difficult to establish accurate statistics. This is especially true for volunteer firefighters who may serve with a department for 20 years and then retire from their regular employment and move to another area. A few years later, they develop cancer, and no one knows to document this as a case of firefighter cancer. The Registry will go a long way in documenting and tracking this deadly disease and how it is affecting firefighters

Volunteer incentives

The 2020 budget also restores the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act (VRIPA). VIRPA exempts benefits such as property tax benefits and up to $600 of additional incentives (like stipends) that volunteers receive as a reward for their service from being subject to federal income tax and reporting.

USFA funding

Last but not least, the budget allocates $46.8 million for the U.S. Fire Administration, up from $44.2 million in FY 2019.

USFA provides training to more than 80,000 fire and emergency services personnel each year, performs research and collects data specific to the fire service and fire service activities, and educates the public on the importance of fire safety.

2020 opportunities

The new budget is a win for fire and EMS departments, even if just a small one.

The Siren grant program will pump additional revenue into rural communities for EMS agencies. Hopefully Congress will see the benefit it provides and increases the yearly allocations for the program.

On the fire side, both SAFER and AFG programs saw increased funding, even if it is only a token amount again this year; at least it is a step forward. VFA funds for rural fire departments were increased by $1 million again this year, which is a rather substantial increase for the small program.

The best way we can show Congress that these programs need dramatic increases in funding is to continue to apply for them when they open. For those who are successful, share your story with your Congressional representative and senators to underscore the importance of the funding. For those who are not successful, contact your federal officials and let them know that your critical needs could not be met because the AFG or SAFER program didn’t have enough funding. The only way Congress knows about your needs is if you share it with them.

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