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Will Sen. Sanders’ new bill get funding to the departments that need it most?

There are several ways to help AFG and SAFER funding reach more volunteer and rural fire departments

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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced S-3592 – the Firefighter Staffing and Support Act – to nearly triple funding for recruitment and retention efforts via the AFG and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants programs over five years.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Since its establishment in fiscal year 2001, the Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program has been reauthorized three times. The third and current reauthorization is the United States Fire Administration, AFG, and SAFER Program Reauthorization Act of 2017 (P.L. 115-98), which authorizes the program through fiscal year 2023.

Now, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced S-3592 – the Firefighter Staffing and Support Act – to nearly triple funding for recruitment and retention efforts via the AFG and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants programs over five years.

“The difficulty in recruiting and retaining personnel is an absolute crisis that has left fire departments and the communities they protect dangerously short-staffed,” Sanders said in a press release about the bill.

He added: “There are a lot of reasons why we are where we are. But in my view, one thing is entirely clear: Our firefighters, both volunteer and paid, put their lives on the line to protect our communities, but they are not getting the proper support and resources they need and deserve. It’s time for that to change.”

The Firefighter Staffing and Support Act would increase available federal funding to fire departments by more than 300%, reaching $12 billion. The legislation would also:

  • Allocate funding for technical assistance to support departments in applying for these funds;
  • Require that FEMA and the USFA develop an action plan to improve and streamline the application process;
  • Require that FEMA and the USFA provide a report detailing the challenges rural and volunteer fire departments face with staffing, and develop a plan to use federal resources to address the crisis; and
  • Protect volunteers from being fired, demoted or discriminated against by their employer if they respond to a federal emergency or major disaster.

Let’s consider some key questions.

Would the increased funding reach the departments Sanders is focused on?

Sanders’ legislation would provide the opportunity for increased funding across the board to volunteer and career departments, but it appears that his primary concern is rural volunteer departments.

There’s certainly reason to be alarmed about the amount of federal funding going to both rural and volunteer departments. In its latest report issued in April 2019, the Congressional Research Service found that over a five-year period, the percentage of AFG grants going to volunteer departments had dropped by 12%, and the percentage of grant funding going to rural departments dropped by 8% in that same period.

My fear is that disparity would continue to grow even with the technical assistance funding that’s included in this legislation.

What’s the real problem?

Many small rural and volunteer departments feel locked out of the AFG and SAFER grant process.

The application process is cumbersome and difficult to navigate. The guidelines for the applications are long and often hard to understand. The 2021 SAFER NOFO was 73 pages long, and the 2021 AFG NOFO was 84 pages. SAFER applications have narratives on top of narratives that appear to ask the same question over and over. Some departments simply don’t have the staff or the time to complete an application. What’s more, some rural departments lack internet access.

The proposed legislation contains $10 million in technical assistance to help departments apply for funding but does not indicate how this technical assistance will be delivered. FEMA dropped the regional workshops that they provided in the past, opting to go with webinars. Their thinking was that they could reach more departments this way. That is true to a degree, but it doesn’t take into account that many people still like to sit down and talk to someone in person to get their questions answered. And again, what about the departments that lack internet access.

What’s the answer?

Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that Senator Sanders wants to start funding fire and EMS at more realistic amounts than we have experienced for the last 10 years. The problem is how to get the funding to those who need it. Here are my thoughts:

  • Simplify the application and clarify the language. For example, the AFG application poses the question, “Does your department protect critical infrastructure of the state?” So many applicants have answered no because they think it is asking whether they protect state government property when it is simply asking if they have any critical infrastructure in your coverage area. Another confusing question: “Does your department have any rainy-day reserves, emergency funds or capital outlay?” What makes this so bizarre is the first two items in the question are types of savings accounts and a capital outlay is an expenditure. Also, if we have $2,500 in the summer festival account as startup money for next year’s festival, is that considered a reserve?
  • Streamline the SAFER narratives. Most applicants believe that answering the narrative questions is like be interrogated by the secret police. There are nine narratives that seem to ask the same questions over and over, and that doesn’t count the narratives in the “Characteristics” section of the application.
  • Simplify the SAFER Staffing Matrix. I am certain that the same person that invented the Rubik’s Cube designed the SAFER Staffing Matrix. Again, why not ask questions in plain everyday language that applicants can understand? Instead of asking, “What is the total number of NFPA support personnel?” ask “How many firefighters answer alarms at your department?”
  • Cut the total number of narratives in either application down to five: Describe your department and your service area. Describe the critical infrastructure you protect. Describe your project. Why can’t your department fund this project itself and what are the benefits of funding your project?
  • Before making application changes, ask the members of the fire service to review the proposed application and provide feedback for improvement.
  • Ask for volunteers to file dummy applications months before the actual application period to test functionality and technical elements. Every year there is some technical problem with the application. Why not do a beta test long before it opens to work out the kinks?
  • Last but certainly not least, change the funding formula under AFG. Currently at least 25% of the awards must go to volunteer departments. That’s not fair when the latest NFPA survey shows that 70% of departments are volunteer. The percentage in the reauthorized legislation should have 50% set aside for volunteer departments.

We need a change

Unfortunately, most applicants for AFG and SAFER grants don’t see the current application process as a way for FEMA to decide upon the most deserving grants but rather as a vehicle to cut down on the number of departments applying for financial assistance. That needs to change.

Jerry Brant is a senior grant consultant and grant writer with FireGrantsHelp and EMSGrantsHelp. He has 46 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter in west-central Pennsylvania. He is a life member of the Hope Fire Company of Northern Cambria, where he served as chief for 15 years. He is an active member of the Patton Fire Company 1 and serves as safety officer. Brant graduated from Saint Francis University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. In 2003, he was awarded a James A Johnson Fellowship by the FannieMae Foundation for his accomplishments in community development, and in 2019, he was honored as with the Leroy C Focht Sr. Memorial Award from the Central District Volunteer Fireman’s Association. He has successfully written more than $70 million in grant applications. Brant can be reached via email.