Senators to Vote on SAFER Funding

Fairfax, VA – The IAFC is issuing an urgent call for all fire chiefs to write or call both of your United States senators immediately to express your support for an amendment that would fund the SAFER Act (the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Firefighters Act of 2003) in Fiscal Year 2005 (FY05).

The IAFC has learned that Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) are introducing an amendment to the homeland security appropriations bill for FY05 that would fund SAFER at $100 million. Urgent action is necessary because the Senate will be voting on this amendment – and the full appropriations bill – as early as late this afternoon.

“We must act now, aggressively, on this one-shot opportunity – the only one that we will have this year,” said IAFC President Bob DiPoli. “Since the events of 9/11, we have been raising the awareness on Capitol Hill and in the administration of the need for significantly increased staffing levels for firefighting and EMS. Now we have the chance to start a program that will provide increased staffing for career, volunteer, and combination departments. We must act today!”

The SAFER Act would provide federal grant money directly to local fire departments to hire additional personnel. Despite the critical services they provide, many professional and volunteer fire departments in the nation – in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike – do not have sufficient personnel to adequately protect the public. The FEMA study entitled “A Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service,” issued in December of 2002, found that fire departments commonly operate with staffing levels that do not meet the minimum safe staffing levels required by OSHA and the National Fire Protection Association. This puts the public – and firefighters – at greater risk of harm.

Fire departments are dangerously understaffed. NFPA Standard 1710 says that for safe operations, at least four firefighters must staff each apparatus. When fewer than four firefighters are on scene, first responders must choose between placing themselves in danger or putting the community at continued risk until backup arrives.

Congress has authorized the SAFER Act to grant federal funds to local communities to hire more firefighters. SAFER authorizes the USFA to award $7.6 billion in grants over seven years to career, volunteer and combination departments. Grants will be awarded on the basis of need through a competitive, peer-reviewed process modeled after the highly successful FIRE Act grant program. The grants are for a four-year period and must not exceed a total of $100,000 per firefighter. They require communities to match the grant (at 10, 20, 50 and 70 percent in years one through four of the grant, respectively, to phase down local government dependence on the federal government). Recipients are required to retain new hires for at least one year following the conclusion of federal funding.

SAFER contains a specific provision to make sure that 10 percent of the appropriated funds are used for departments with majority volunteer or all volunteer personnel. In addition, at least 10 percent of the total appropriated funds must be used to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters.

Due in great part to the work of the IAFC and other major fire service organizations, President Bush signed the SAFER Act into law on November 24, 2003 as part of the funding bill for the Department of Defense. Note that the bill authorized the program but did not provide any money for it. In fact, the first opportunity for Congress to appropriate money for the program will be for FY05.

The vehicle for SAFER funds is the homeland security appropriations bill. On June 17, 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment to this bill to fund SAFER at $50 million. The entire bill subsequently passed the House on June 18.

Also on June 17, the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. Senate released its version of the homeland security appropriations bill. It did not contain any funding for SAFER. However, Senators Dodd and Specter are introducing an amendment to fund SAFER at $100 million. The full Senate will vote on this amendment, and then the full appropriations bill, within the next few days.

Once the Senate has voted to approve the full appropriations measure, the bill will go to a conference committee made up of Senators and Representatives from both sides of the aisle who will work out the differences between the bills. Once they have done so, and the House and Senate have voted to approve the conference committee version of the bill, it will go to President Bush for his signature.

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