Washington, D.C. – President Bush unveiled his fiscal year 2007 budget request February 6, stating a wish to limit funding and identifying programs to be eliminated or cut. A number of programs that are extremely important to America’s volunteer fire and emergency medical services would suffer under the President’s proposed budget.
The National Volunteer Fire Council is extremely concerned over the proposal to reduce funding for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, which provides funding on a competitive basis to fire departments to purchase equipment, vehicles and training. Under the President’s plan, the AFG program would be funded at $293 million, down from $545 million in FY 2006. That is $252 million less than Congress appropriated and $207 less than the request for the AFG program last year.
“The AFG program is terribly important to the fire service because the funding goes directly to the fire departments that need it most,” said NVFC Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg. “The program is designed to give fire departments across the country the basic tools that they need to respond to everything from typical calls to national disasters.”
The Department of Homeland Security received approximately $3 billion in AFG requests in FY 2006 from more than 20,000 fire departments nationwide. If the requested level of funding is enacted it will be the third year in a row that the AFG program has been cut by at least $100 million.
“In most Homeland Security grant programs, funding is funneled through state and local governments before it gets to first responders and as a result it moves slowly,” Stittleburg continued. “With the AFG program, applications are ranked by impartial panels of firefighters, and the funding goes right out to deserving fire departments with very little red tape. The NVFC strongly believes that this program should be fully funded at $1 billion as authorized by Congress in 2004.”
The budget request eliminates funding for the SAFER program, which provides grants to fire departments for hiring personnel and for recruitment and retention efforts, as well as the Department of Interior’s Rural Fire Assistance Program, which enhances the fire protection capabilities of rural fire districts in the wildland-urban interface. The request would also reduce by approximately 40 percent funding for the U.S. Forest Service’s Volunteer Fire Assistance Program, which provides matching grants to rural fire departments that protect communities with populations under 10,000.
“In the wake of the last hurricane season and with all of the wildfires around the country, it is as clear now as it ever has been that America depends on its firefighters and emergency medical service providers to be prepared to respond to all manner of events,” Stittleburg said. “Money spent now to strengthen fire departments is an investment and should be viewed as such. The only limit on our ability to respond to a disaster is the extent to which we prepare for it. Cutting these critical programs in the name of fiscal responsibility would be a short-sited misallocation of resources.”
One relatively bright spot in the request was a proposal to increase funding for the U.S. Fire Administration by more than four percent, marking the first time that USFA has received a line-item request in the President’s budget. The NVFC has long advocated providing USFA with a line-item to allow for greater budget transparency and to protect against having their funding diverted to other agencies.
The President also requested $35 million for Citizen Corps, a component of which is the Fire Corps program that NVFC helps to administer. Fire Corps promotes the use of citizen volunteers to enhance the capacity of fire and rescue departments by performing non-operational functions. That is $15 million higher than the enacted level for FY 2006 but $15 million below the President’s request of $50 million for that year.
“This is only the start of the process,” said Stittleburg. “Congress will ultimately determine whether America’s firefighters get the resources that they need and NVFC will continue to advocate on their behalf.”