Washington, D.C. – Over the Columbus Day weekend, Congress passed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations bill for fiscal year 2005. This bill funds several important fire service grant programs, most notably the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (FIRE Act) and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Program (SAFER). Congress provided $650 million in funding for the FIRE Act. This is a decrease of $100 million from the appropriation of $750 million that Congress approved in each of the last two years. In addition, Congress funded SAFER at $65 million. SAFER was authorized last year and this is the first time it has received an appropriation.
The cut to FIRE Act funding was expected in light of the overall federal budget and the increasing deficit. In February, at the start of the annual appropriations process, the president initially proposed funding the FIRE Act at $500 million and did not request any funding for SAFER.
In making this appropriation, the committee included strong language directing DHS to retain the program’s overall focus on “all-hazards” preparation and to reinstate eligibility for several program categories that the department had proposed deleting, including wellness and fitness programs, emergency medical services, fire prevention programs, public education programs, and modifications of facilities for health and safety of personnel. They also directed the department to continue the current practice of funding applications according to local priorities and those established by the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and they directed DHS to continue to include the USFA in grant administration.
The FIRE Act reauthorization makes several substantial changes to the program, while keeping its overall structure largely intact. Most of these changes were based on recommendations submitted to Congress by major fire service organizations. The primary changes to the bill are:
Reduced Local Match
The reauthorization reduces the community match from 30 percent to 20 percent for jurisdictions larger than 50,000 people. For jurisdictions between 20,000 and 50,000 people, the match is reduced to 10 percent. Finally, in jurisdictions smaller than 20,000 people, it is reduced to five percent.
Increased Maximum Award Amount
The reauthorization significantly increases the maximum amount that can be awarded to a single department. Prior to reauthorization, the grant amount was capped at $750,000. This is increased to $1 million for jurisdictions smaller than 500,000 people. It is further increased to $1.75 million for jurisdictions between 500,000 and 1 million people. Finally, it is increased to $2.75 million for those large urban areas with more than 1 million people. This provision is limited by an overall cap that states that no single award can be in excess of one-half of one percent of the total appropriation. (For example, if the annual appropriation were reduced to $500 million one year, no single grant could exceed $2.5 million for that year.)
Addition of Funding for Firefighter Research and Development
Currently, no less than five percent of funding is set aside for non-competitive grants to fund fire prevention programs. Eligibility for these funds is increased to include organizations that are conducting research to improve fire fighter health and life safety. The motivation for this change is the need to foster research to develop new technologies which would provide greater protection for fire fighters.
Ensures Fire Service Participation in Grant Criteria Development and Peer Review
The reauthorization requires the involvement of national fire service groups in both key aspects of administering the program. Since the program’s inception, the federal agencies that have administered the program have worked closely with the national fire service organizations to ensure that grants are awarded efficiently and fairly. This close involvement of the fire service is one of the principal reasons for the FIRE Act’s sustained success. The reauthorization ensures that this practice continues by requiring fire service participation in the annual meetings that result in the development of criteria for administration of the program and the peer review process for granting awards.
USFA Administers the FIRE Act
The reauthorization program provides responsibility for administering the program to the Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate (formerly FEMA) acting through the administrator of the United States Fire Administration (USFA). This decision reflects Congress’ continued concern over the Bush administration’s decision to house the program within the Office for State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness (SLGCP). Because this office has a primary focus on terrorism response, Congress decided to move the program back to the USFA in order to protect the “all-hazards” focus of the FIRE Act. It is important to recognize, however, that the annual appropriation for the FIRE Act places responsibility for administering the program in SLGCP. The impact of these contradictory congressional positions is unclear at this time.
Expand Eligibility to Include “Non-affiliated” EMS Organizations
Congress expanded eligibility for grants under the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program to “public or private nonprofit emergency medical services organization[s].” As initially introduced in both the House and the Senate, the bill would have only extended eligibility to volunteer EMS organizations. However, during the legislative process, eligibility was extended beyond volunteer organizations to include government third-service providers.
Congress did, however, include several provisions to carefully restrict the impact of this expansion. First, they included a ceiling of two percent on the total amount of funding that can go to these EMS organizations. Additionally, EMS organizations located in areas where fire departments already provide EMS are not eligible for grants.