Fire departments have spent nearly $1.2 billion in federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) money on personal protective equipment over the past five years.
Structural gear and self-contained breathing apparatus account for about 94 percent of that total, according to statistics provided by AFG officials in response to a request from Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment magazine.
A 2005 survey by the National Fire Protection Association estimated that 60 percent of fire departments do not have enough SCBA to equip all firefighters on a shift and that 59 percent have some SCBA units that are 10 years old or older.
The AFG program was created by Congress in October 2000 in response to reports that the fire service was poorly equipped.
Shortages of SCBA are cited by fire service organizations as one of a number of critical needs in their efforts each year to persuade Congress to increase the president’s proposed budget for the AFG program. Last year Congress approved $560 million in AFG funding for fiscal 2008, and this year the president proposed $300 million for fiscal 2009.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us, there’s no question about that,” Bill Webb, the executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, said this spring.
As of July, based on appropriation committee votes in the House and Senate, Webb said it looked like Congress would fund the AFG program at or slightly above the 2008 level. However, he said, it is possible the final figure may not be set until after the election and could affect the timing of grants next year.
CFSI works closely with a range of fire organizations, including the Government Affairs Committee of the Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Services Association (FEMSA) and the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association (FAMA).
“Obviously additional funding for equipment is always good for the equipment suppliers, but the real emphasis is how important is it to the fire service,” said John Granby, a co-chair of the Government Affairs Committee and the vice president of domestic preparedness and government markets for Lion Apparel of Dayton, Ohio. “Equipment is still woefully low, and a strong percentage is quite outdated.”
Overall, the AFG program awarded $2.7 billion in grants during the period from fiscal 2003 through 2007. Grant awards are divided into three broad categories – PPE, vehicles and equipment.
Dollars awarded for PPE exceeded those approved for vehicle purchases, which totaled $891 million over the five years. Within the vehicle category, the vast majority of the money was spent on pumpers at $541 million (60 percent) and tankers at $224 million (25 percent). Aerials accounted for six percent.
Grant awards for equipment totaled $631 million over the five-year time frame with nearly half of that money – $308 million – spent on communications. The next highest items within the equipment category were firefighting equipment at $103 million (16 percent) and air-fill systems at $89 million (14 percent).
Brian Cowan, who directs the AFG program for the federal Emergency Management Agency, said he believes the statistics accurately reflect the strategic needs of fire departments nationally. “The dollars are not a straight reflection of how many applications we get in a particular area,” he said. “But I would not be at all surprised that we have similar percentages in our applications in terms of dollar requests and the types of items we’ve awarded.”
The dollar value of the applications far exceeds the amount of grant money available every year.
He said a statistical summary of the program had not been developed until Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment made its request. “I am actually delighted we went through this process of extracting these data,” he said, “and we plan on posting it at the AFG Web site.”
Cowan said he was initially surprised by only one statistic, the large amount of money awarded for communications equipment. “But on reflection,” he said, “that really isn’t a surprise because obviously communications on the fire ground is so critical that it should be one of the first things that fire departments are asking for.”
Communications is another critical need cited in the 2005 NFPA survey, which was conducted for an October 2006 report called “Four Years Later – A Second Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service.” It was published by the U.S. Fire Administration as a cooperative study involving the NFPA and the Department of Homeland Security’s Directorate for Preparedness, and it was a follow-up to the first report produced in 2002.
“An estimated 65 percent of fire departments do not have enough portable radios to equip all emergency responders on a shift,” the 2006 report said.
The report also measured the quality of the portable radios in use around the country, estimating that 70 to 75 percent of fire departments have some portable radios that are not water-resistant and 75 to 80 percent have some that lack intrinsic safety in an explosive atmosphere. The percentages were said to be higher for small, rural communities.
In addition to documenting shortages of SCBA, the report estimated half of all fire departments do not have enough personal alert safety system (PASS) devices to equip all emergency responders on a shift.
Regarding PPE, the report estimated eight percent of departments do not have enough to equip all firefighters and 66 percent have some that is at least 10 years old.
Addressing apparatus, the report said nearly half of all pumpers in the nation’s fire departments – about 40,000 – are at least 15 years old.
The needs assessment report is cited in letters signed by eight fire service organizations that were sent to members of Congress this spring regarding funding for the AFG program, as well as the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program.
“We urge your continued support for these successful and indispensable programs,” the letters said. “The drastic cuts proposed by the administration would exacerbate the critical shortages in training and equipment addressed in the [needs assessment] report, adding to the level of risk firefighters face on a daily basis.”
The Congressional Fire Services Institute is one of the lead organizations working to build support in Congress for the AFG and SAFER programs. One factor that distinguishes this year from others is the distressed economy.
“It is a big concern,” said Webb. “If the tax base goes down, who bears the brunt? A lot of times it’s the local fire departments that will see some of their budgets reduced. So I think there’s a greater sense of urgency to get the federal programs funded to the fullest extent possible.”
While the economy is a major concern, David Finger, director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said his organization does not stress that element in its message to Congress.
“We tend to focus a little bit more on the needs of the fire service and why they’re important,” he said. “To the extent that fire departments are having trouble getting local funding, the purpose of those grant programs isn’t to replace that.”
He noted that national economic troubles affect everyone, and in turn, the abilities of volunteer fire departments to raise money to help fund their operations. In addition, he pointed out, the rising price of fuel hurts volunteer departments with their limited resources.
Need For Equipment
“There’s the expense of running multiple apparatus to these calls and sending fire engines to run what basically should be ambulance calls,” he said. “There are a lot of volunteer departments that are having some big problems just paying their bills.”
While the Bush administration has proposed reduced levels of funding for the AFG program every year, he said, Congress has been very supportive. It reduced spending on many other government programs in recent years, but maintained and slightly increased funding levels for AFG.
Finger said there are misunderstandings among some at the Department of Homeland Security about the AFG program.
“If you ask somebody over at DHS about the budget request,” he said, “they’ll claim that the point of the program is to get equipment for people and we’ve given that equipment to folks and they don’t need it anymore. That overlooks the fact that only a small sliver of the need that’s out there has been addressed.”
Both Finger and Webb stressed that while representatives of fire service organizations work on support for grant funding in Washington, firefighters need to be engaged at their local levels, letting their congressional representatives know about their needs for equipment and apparatus.
In addition, Webb said, fire apparatus and equipment manufacturers, who work closely with his Congressional Fire Services Institute, have a message to deliver, particularly when unemployment is rising.
“This is not supposed to be a job creation program,” he said, “but on the other hand, the fire grant program has sent a large infusion of funding into some local communities enabling these companies to expand their capacity.”
Granby, the Lion Apparel vice president and GAC co-chairman, agreed the AFG program does provide an economic development stimulus, although that is ancillary to its real purpose, which “is truly for the advancement of safety related items and equipment within the fire departments for them to do their job.”
When a fire department is approved for a grant, he said, it usually buys through the fire equipment dealer network, which frequently has a local or regional presence.
“There is a sale involved there, so the economic transfer of funds is a local or regional transfer,” he said. “And at the dealer point there is another sale involving the manufacturer. So it helps drive local economies and the national economy.”