How to make the proposed fire station construction grant program work effectively
With $1 billion potentially at stake, we need to ensure effective use of the funds
In June, U.S. Representatives Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ-09), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01) and Michael Bost (R-IL-12), co-chairs of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, introduced bipartisan legislation that would help construct new fire stations or renovate existing stations. If approved, the Fire Station Construction Grants Act (HR 3728) would authorize $1 billion in grants administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Why the Need?
In 2019, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released the report Renovations Needs of the U.S. Fire Service. This report showed that 43% of the surveyed fire stations are more than 40 years old. In many cases, they are not equipped with cancer-preventing exhaust emissions control systems. Approximately one-third of the surveyed firehouses did not have access to backup power. In addition, these stations may be affected by mold, old ventilation systems and other environmental problems, and they may not have crew quarters for female fire and EMS personnel. Due to budget cuts and lack of federal grant funding, fire departments are often unable to upgrade or replace these facilities.
HR 3728, the Fire Station Construction Grants Act, would authorize $1 billion in fire station construction grants administered by FEMA to:
- Build, rebuild or renovate fire and EMS department facilities.
- Upgrade existing facilities to install exhaust emission control systems; install backup power systems; upgrade or replace environmental control systems, such as HVAC systems; remove or remediate mold; and construct or modify living quarters for use by male and female personnel (or employ gender-neutral design).
- Upgrade fire and EMS stations or build new stations to meet modern building codes and standards as set by the NFPA and International Code Council.
The legislation requires that FEMA allocate 25% of the grants for career fire and EMS departments, 25% of the grants for combination fire and EMS departments, and 25% of the grants for volunteer fire and EMS departments. The remaining 25% would be open to competition between the various department types. Grantees must meet prevailing wage and labor standards requirements under the Davis-Bacon Act and procurement requirements under the Buy American Act. Grant awards are limited to $7.5 million per project.
In 2009, Congress authorized $210 million for a Station Construction Grant Program (SCG) to build new or renovate existing fire stations. It was part of an expansive program to address the effects of the 2008 Recession.
There were 6,025 applications totaling $9.9 billion for the SCG grants. FEMA awarded 119 grants. For successful applicants, it was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine they would land a new fire station. For the approximately 5,900 that didn’t get funded, the rejected application was not merely a matter of disappointment; many departments were dealt a negative impact to their budget just by applying. Why? The grant program was prioritizing “shovel-ready” projects. To apply for funding for a new station, you needed to hire an architect to develop plans and cost estimates. If you didn’t have a property under your control you had to locate a suitable property, have a title search done and secure an option on that parcel. All these services cost the unsuccessful applicants money they didn’t have.
Suggestions for the Proposed Program
HR 3728 would appropriate $1 billion for a new station construction grant program. The bill would only allocate funding for the program. How the grant program would operate would be determined by FEMA. I have some thoughts on how to get this funding to more departments in a shorter period and not have the applicant incur any upfront costs. Here are my suggestions:
- Divide the anticipated $1 billion appropriation into two equal pots, $500 million for station construction or renovation and $500 million for station system improvements such as diesel exhaust removal, HVAC improvements and backup power generators. There are thousands of stations that need basic system upgrades. Using this approach would get funding out to more departments and would allow similar projects to compete with each other during the review process.
- Carve out funds to be used for microgrants of less than $100,000. This would encourage departments with smaller needs and budgets to apply.
- Hire an architectural firm to design six model stations: two that would work in an urban area, two in a suburban area and two in a rural area. Applying departments could choose one of the predesigned models or pay for their own design; the department would be responsible for any land development costs. Because FEMA would already have the cost of the predesigned unit and the design would already be created, applicants would save time and money. Such a process would also guarantee the new station met all applicable codes and that the department wasn’t wasting money on a lavish unit.
These are simply suggestions for maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of a program to provide funding to departments that need station improvement projects. As the NFPA survey discovered, there is a drastic need for a grant program to address the condition of fire stations across our nation. Please encourage your representative in Congress to support HR 3728.