BY BOBBY HALTON
A firefighter friend of mine borrowed some of my fire service textbooks a few years ago to study for a test. I see my friend almost every day, but I have never again seen the books. Occasionally, I need one to check a fact or research something from one of those books. When I look at the empty bookshelf, I think, “Darn, that’s right, he still has them.” But he’s a great friend, so I just go on. It’s no big deal; I’ll figure it out some other way.
On the other hand, a neighbor occasionally borrows a tool or two. He is not a firefighter, and he usually returns them quickly. But while they are missing, I notice it. I don’t like it, and I complain to my familyeven to the dog. I guess we tolerate inconveniences better when friends do things to us because they are our friends. We even stay quiet and figure out how to do without because we like and care about our friends.
Recently, President Obama’s budget came out. He reduced the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) to $170 million from $570 million. That is a 70 percent reduction to that part of our homeland security monies. When I looked at that budget, I felt as if I was staring at my empty bookshelf. As of today, Congress has restored some of the money to the AFGit’s funded at $390 million, which is 31 percent lower.
When Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was asked to explain, she stated that input from firefighters was a major reason for the funding decrease. In budget hearings, she stated that fire departments and local governments have indicated that staffing is a more pressing concern than equipment and training.
Yes, staffing is the most critical issue, but we must have well-trained and well-equipped and staffed four-person companies. Staffing, tools, and training are all inextricably intertwined. In a perfect world, the President would not decrease any other sources of funding to increase others, but the world is not perfect. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make it better.
To address this staffing need, the President has increased the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program from $210 million to $420 million. Last year, 1,300 departments applied for about $600 million in assistance through the SAFER program. The President also approved new rules that govern how fire departments can use funding from SAFER. Under the new guidelines, departments can use SAFER funding to rehire laid-off firefighters and prevent fire department staffing reductions that occurred as a result of the current financial crisis. Additionally, Napolitano now has the discretion to waive the rules governing the SAFER program, and there is also a committee working to create a new set of guidelines for the program.
The requests received for AFG money last year totaled $3.2 billion from more than 21,000 fire departments. The funding of AFG at $390 million means that only about 11 percent of the grants requested last year could be funded. We know that the money from the AFG program has put SCBAs in towns that could never afford them, bunker gear on firefighters who were using gear that was multiple standards out of compliance, and fire engines into communities that for too long did without. Those grants also funded medical research, which is going to save hundreds of firefighters’ lives.
We were also told the grant program was reduced because $210 million was put into the stimulus plan for fire station construction and remodeling, and another $210 was moved to SAFER. This “robbing Peter to pay Paul” play is worrisome.
No one is more obsessed with NFPA-compliant staffing than I am. But why, when millions of dollars are being spent on swine odor; to study termites, bumblebees, and grape genetics; and to build turtle tunnels and garages for bicycles in Seattle, should firefighter safety be compromised and the AFG be slashed? Why should these critical needs be ignored or left unaddressed?
The $210 million for construction and remodeling stimulus money will do good things for a lot of places that are falling apart. This money should help to build stations that were destroyed in natural catastrophes, especially along the Gulf Coast, or those that have fallen on hard times. The $400 million for SAFER is great, but $390 million for the AFG program is just a bad deal. But the President is our friend, so we will just stay quiet and do without.
Regarding SAFER, staffing is fundamental to fireground safety. Make SAFER money at $600 million. Fund as many of those staffing requests as possible. But America also needs the AFG program funded at the absolute maximum levels Congress can provide. We need SAFER to be funded to at least $600 million, if not more, and the SAFER program parameters adjusted.
Just as critical, to meet the needs of rural America, suburban America, and much of urban America, we need the AFG to be funded at $1 billion and the program to receive more focused management.
President Obama: Friends don’t let friends fight fires alone, unequipped, or untrained, and they return tools and favors.