Fire grant programs: How to save them

While funding for next year's grants is on track, the entire program is set to expire; here's how to keep them alive

During my career in the fire service, I have observed that firefighters, volunteers especially, hate to deal with the media and elected officials.

This isn't the time or the place to go into a long dissertation on why developing a positive relationship with both of these groups is essential to the success of your department.

However, it is the time to start focusing on two extremely important proceedings that Congress will tackle in the coming months, and the implications that these measures will have on the fire service.

The first is our annual battle to keep AFG funding at least at current levels. Remember, the existence of any federal program is a two-step process. First the program has to be authorized by Congress. Then funding for the program must be included in the annual federal budget.

Last week, the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Homeland Security approved the draft FY2017 spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security. The $47.8 billion spending bill contains $6.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That is $432 million above the administration's request.

Included in this bill are the Assistance to Firefighters and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant programs funded at $345 million each, the same level as the current fiscal year. The bill also provides $42.5 million for the U.S. Fire Administration and an additional $1.5 million for infrastructure improvements at the agency's Emmitsburg, Md. campus.

The Urban Search and Rescue System is funded at $36.28 million, an increase of $1.1 million over the current fiscal year. The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to consider the draft spending bill next week.

Saving the program
In the other chamber, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved, that group's version of the FY2017 Homeland Security spending plan. The Senate bill funds the AFG/SAFER grant programs at a combined $680 million; this is $10 million less than the current fiscal year.

If both houses of Congress pass different versions of the bill, it will be sent to a compromise committee made up of members of both bodies to work out a version that both houses can agree on.

If you remember, the administration's budget proposal had recommended reducing funding for the AFG/SAFER grant programs by $20 million. So it looks as if once again the fire service may win the battle and avoid any drastic reduction to our grant programs.

Now to focus on the second issue. In 2017 the AFG and SAFER grant programs are scheduled to sunset. For those relatively new to the fire service, it took us over 25 years to get a federal grant program established.

The landmark document "America Burning" first recommended a federal grant program in 1973 but it wasn't authorized by Congress until 2000. If Congress does not reauthorize these programs, all of our federal grant funding disappears.

We need to start today to address the importance of this program with our federal legislators. There are several ways you can help.

If you receive a 2015 AFG award and are contacted by your representative, please respond to their phone call or email. Do this, if for no other reason, to thank them for supporting this program and to tell them how important receiving this award was to your department and community.

If you receive an award and are not contacted by your representative, call them. Tell them how receiving this award will play a positive role in your community.

If you belong to a county or regional fire services group please consider meeting with your Representative or Senator. Explain to them how vital the continuation of these programs are to the health and safety of the communities they represent.

It took too long and we fought too hard to get these programs established. Hiding from the media and politicians now could put all that work at risk. 

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