This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, arguably one of the biggest boons to the fire service, ever.
Since its implementation, the competitive funding program has awarded more than $9 billion to thousands of fire departments nationwide.
It was signed into law in 2000 by then-President Bill Clinton and, in the intervening year before a penny had been awarded, the 9/11 attacks hit the nation.
At the time, the nation viewed all firefighters as heroes when only a tiny fraction had anything to do with the events, but many of those who were involved made the ultimate sacrifice.
Still, the U.S. population was grateful for firefighters, and its taxpayers and residents were more than happy to award more than $91 million to deserving fire departments in that first year.
Even my tiny department in northern New Hampshire was awarded a little more than $31,000 for new SCBA. It was much appreciated and replaced some sorely out of compliance, outdated breathing apparatus with state-of-the-art equipment. It would have been painful for the mere 200 taxpayers in my precinct to shoulder the burden that would have fallen to them without the federal assistance.
I helped write the grant and I was surprised that we got an award. Even at the start, it was competitive and there were more applicants than awards. It was, and still is, like a sweepstakes lottery—you’re likely not going to get an award, but you must play to win. My department has been lucky; we’ve “won” twice—more recently getting money for a four-gas air quality monitor with calibration equipment.
Any department may apply for grants in one of four program areas: fire operations and fire safety, fire prevention, emergency medical services, and fire vehicle acquisitions. Recipients must agree to share the cost of the funded project at the rate of 30 percent match for communities with populations of 50,000 or greater and 10 percent match for communities with a population of less than 50,000.
It’s a good deal for any fire department, no matter how you slice it. Yet, there are many communities that turned down awards for lack of matching funds. That’s a crying shame for those departments that could sorely use the money.
As the federal debt continues to explode, firefighters and officers need to protect this funding source for local fire departments. It would be easy for Congress and senators to cut $100 million from the federal budget. Firefighting and EMS are no longer in the limelight as intensely as they were in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and we need to keep vigilant to make sure the feds fund the AFG each year.
Both former presidents Obama and Trump proposed cuts to the AFG program, and it’s likely cuts will be proposed in the future as demands for federal budget reconciliation grow stronger. We are still recovering from the effects of COVID-19, and grant money is low-hanging fruit when it comes to budget cuts needed to even try to balance the federal budget.
Manufacturers lobby hard to keep that money in play as they directly benefit from the cash the departments spend on the apparatus and gear using federal grant money.
The members of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) recognize the importance of the AFG program. Every year for the past 15, its members have sponsored “Hill Day,” where FAMA members and representatives meet with federal legislators to stress the importance of the grant program and to promote the fire service industry in general.
Elsewhere in this edition of FA&EE, you will read a column about the efforts FAMA makes on our behalf to preserve that money and promote the fire service. It’s an excellent example of the partnership we all share in keeping first responders and the public safe.
Reauthorization of the Fire Act Grant Program and staving off cuts while fighting to increase funding is a responsibility we all have—right down to the individual firefighters.
Pick up the phone, send an e-mail or text, or even write an old-fashioned letter with a postage stamp on it to the members of Congress in your district and let them know how important the grant money is to the job you do every day.
Most importantly, take the time to apply for the money when the application period is open. You can do it yourself, and it’s not that hard.
It’s a lot like playing the lottery: You can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket.
While there is no such thing as free money, we all pay for it with tax dollars. It’s a very good method for sharing the wealth no matter how you look at it.