Staffing Trumps Equipment In Federal AFG Funding Shift

Issue 7 and Volume 14.

The odds that your fire department will get a federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) to buy apparatus next year are not looking good.

The approval rate for apparatus applications has tumbled from 24 percent in fiscal 2003 to just eight percent in 2008.

To make matters worse, AFG funding for apparatus and equipment, which has been stable in recent years, is expected to decrease in 2010 by nearly $200 million in order to increase grants for hiring and retaining firefighters.

In response to firefighter staffing cutbacks around the country, Congress appears ready to adopt the Obama administration’s strategy – with modifications – to reduce money for equipment while doubling the appropriation for the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program from $210 million this year to $420 million in 2010.

In May the administration proposed decreasing funding for the AFG equipment purchasing program, also known as the Fire Act grant program, from its 2009 level of $565 million to just $170 million in 2010, a reduction of 70 percent.

But that was too deep a cut for the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, which drafted legislation in June to fund AFG equipment grants at $380 million in 2010. At the same time, the committee followed the Obama administration’s recommendation to double SAFER funding in 2010.

A week later the Senate Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee approved funding at the same levels at the House subcommittee. If those turn out to be the final figures, 2010 will be the first year that funding for SAFER exceeds the AFG equipment program appropriation.

Volunteer fire departments will be particularly hard hit by the funding shift, according to David Finger, the director of government relations for the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).

“AFG is by far the most significant source of federal assistance to the volunteer fire service,” he said. “When that goes down, our guys suffer. For a lot of these departments it’s really the only opportunity they have to outfit their personnel with up-to-date equipment.”

He said NVFC is looking for sponsors to introduce an amendment to increase 2010 AFG equipment funding to $420 million, the same level as SAFER.

Both congressional subcommittees received letters of support for the AFG program from a range of fire service organizations, including the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association (FAMA) and the Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Services Association (FEMSA), as well as the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, the largest caucus in Congress with over 320 members.

“This program has had a positive impact on public safety by providing more than $5 billion since 2001 for thermal imaging cameras, personal protective gear, hazmat detection devices, breathing apparatus, advanced training and fitness programs, fire engines, prevention and education programs and interoperable communications systems,” members of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus wrote. “This is the basic equipment fire departments need to respond to all hazards.”

The caucus letter said its members were disappointed that the administration had proposed such a severe cut in the AFG program and noted that in fiscal 2008, over $3 billion in requests for grants were submitted. That year the program was funded at $560 million.

The AFG program routinely receives applications for far more money than it is given to spend.

Statistics provided by AFG officials to Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment magazine show the odds of getting an apparatus grant are much lower than getting a grant for equipment, such as SCBA or turnout gear.

In fiscal 2008, the program received a total of 21,022 applications, of which 7,910 were for apparatus and 13,112 were for equipment and training, a category that is called operations and safety. Just 635 grants were awarded that year for apparatus – an eight percent success rate – while 4,170 grants were approved for operations and safety, a 32 percent success rate.

Documenting The Need

Reports by the National Fire Protection Association in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 and 2006 documented the extent of the nationwide need for firefighting apparatus and equipment.

The reports were based on NFPA surveys of fire departments, and among the findings of the 2006 report were:

  • Nearly half of all pumpers in the nation’s fire departments – about 40,000 – are at least 15 years old.
  • An estimated 65 percent of departments do not have enough portable radios to equip everyone on a shift.
  • As many as 75 percent of departments have some portable radios that are not water resistant or lack intrinsic safety in an explosive atmosphere.
  • About 60 percent of departments do not have enough SCBA to equip all firefighters on a shift and 59 percent have some units that are 10 years old or older.
  • About 66 percent of departments have some PPE that is at least 10 years old.

The NFPA surveys were conducted as part of legislation authorizing and then reauthorizing the AFG program, which is up for reauthorization again this year.

“The need for AFG is still there, and with [municipal] budgets being stressed even more, the need has not gone away,” said John Granby, a vice president with Lion Apparel, who is a co-chair of the FAMA and FEMSA Government Affairs Committee, which has been actively urging Congress to support the fire service.

The Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, which awards grants to the fire service, issued a needs assessment report in May that addressed the impact of the recession, based on a survey of fire departments. The report said 68 percent of respondents said equipment purchases had been delayed and 56 percent said if the economic situation continued for another 12 months it would negatively affect their ability to serve their communities.

Regarding the need for particular types of equipment, PPE (94 percent of respondents) and thermal imaging cameras (90 percent) were at the top of the list.

The Fireman’s Fund report also documented a need for improved extrication tools. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they were not confident their equipment could extract victims in a timely manner from an accident involving vehicles with new materials and construction.

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