Manufacturers Mobilize To Boost Fire Act Grants

In what has become an annual rite of spring, manufacturers of fire and rescue equipment are gearing up to try to persuade Congress to reverse the president’s proposed $247 million cut in funding for fiscal 2008 Fire Act grants, a 7-year-old program that has provided more than $3 billion to fire and rescue departments and may be changing the industry.

A Formidable Task

The congressional task is formidable. The program’s annual appropriation, which is $546 million this fiscal year, has been as high as $750 million and as low as $100 million.

“If you have a senator or congressman on their respective appropriations committee, it is extremely important that you contact them and inform them about the importance of the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program in meeting the needs of first responders nationwide,” reads a memorandum sent to all members of the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association (FAMA) and the Fire Equipment Manufacturers and Suppliers Association (FEMSA). “It is also essential that you convey to your representatives the importance of the AFG program to your company and to the state or congressional district where you have a presence.”

The memo, titled a “Call to Action,” was sent by the co-chairs of the FAMA/FEMSA Governmental Affairs Committee, Steve Lawrence and Bob Kreps.

Lawrence, who operates a business development and consulting business, Rosecliff Partners LLC in Dublin, N.H., said his committee has tried to position itself as a resource for the congressional committees that have responsibility for fire service issues.

“We try to do a lot of work behind the scenes, not necessarily up front,” he said. “We’ve taken the approach that we can be very successful at the district level because we all have operations that employ people in these congressional districts.”

Speaking With One Voice

FAMA and FEMSA have a combined membership of about 300 companies, he said.

In the effort to increase funding for the AFG program, the Governmental Affairs Committee works closely with a number of fire service organizations and with the Congressional Fire Services Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute that was created in 1989 to educate members of Congress about fire and emergency services issues.

“When the president’s budget comes out, there’s an awful lot of anticipation about the funding level, but we don’t get too disappointed with the figure and realize that a lot of our work is going to be with the Congress,” said Bill Webb, the institute’s executive director. “We have been successful in speaking in one voice and as a result we have succeeded in getting these programs funded.”

Lieberman Steps Up

The fire grant program was created by Congress in October 2000, representing a recognition that the federal government should have a role in equipping and training the nation’s firefighters.

In fiscal 2001, the first year grants were awarded, Congress appropriated $100 million for the program. That figure jumped to $360 million in the second year and then to $750 million in the third. The appropriation remained stable at $750 million in the fourth year, but then started dropping.

This year the president’s budget proposed $300 million for fire grant funding, which is managed by the Department of Homeland Security. A companion program that provided funding for staff and for recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters did not fare as well. The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program, known as SAFER, was eliminated from the president’s budget.

In March U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut proposed to add $3.4 billion to the president’s proposed budget for homeland security to bolster first responder programs, including $777 million for firefighters. Lieberman is the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Webb is reluctant to predict how much money Congress will provide for fire grants in fiscal 2008.

“The war is draining budget coffers to a large extent, and you’ve got to look at the other homeland security issues,” he said. “Border security has become a big issue, and Congress is directing a lot more federal funding in that direction.”

Webb pointed out the program is not about homeland security. The intent, he said, was to improve firefighter safety.

“So the focus,” he said, “should be on how can we use those funds to reduce the number of injuries and deaths in the fire service while at the same time reducing the deaths and injuries to the public.”

It is important, he said, for firefighters to make sure the grant money is put to good use. “We need to be very careful to make sure that it’s being targeted at programs and equipment and training that will make a difference.”

The majority of the fire grant funds have been used to purchase apparatus and equipment, providing substantial increases in sales for the members of FAMA and FEMSA.

More Money To R&D

“You see a lot more money going into research and development within our companies,” said Lawrence, “and part of that is because we know that extra $500 million [in grant money] is going to be out there.”

He also said the industry is attracting the attention of corporate executives because of the growth of the market. “Where traditionally we’ve been pretty much family-owned businesses,” he said, “you’re starting to see more and more of the larger companies getting involved in our industry.”

But as the 7-year history of the fire grant program shows, the amount of federal funding can vary widely from year to year.

Last year the fire grant award decisions by the Department of Homeland Security were delayed for months, a setback that sent tremors through the industry. Many companies felt the effects last fall when orders they expected from fire departments did not materialize until the end of the year.

A Flexible Schedule

“That was a substantial hit,” Lawrence said speaking of companies he has as clients, “But I will tell you that they all had phenomenal Januarys and Februarys and they had the best Decembers on record.”

Because his business allows him to have a flexible schedule, Lawrence spends a lot of time in Washington, D.C., working as the co-chair of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which was formed as a joint committee of FAMA and FEMSA three years ago.

The committee has a regular newsletter that charts developments in Congress, and the companies it represents have been encouraged to invite their congressional representatives to their manufacturing plants for tours and lunches. Last year, he said, “all the Chicago members got together for one big event, and they had 137 people there.”

This year, he said, the committee hired a Washington-based consultant who is helping with a number of projects, including a resource plan and the “Call to Action.”

The committee has also developed a Web site – firegrantdata.com – that was scheduled to be ready for viewing by this month. The site, according to Lawrence, is designed for members of congress and their staffs “to find bulletproof success stories of the fire grants.”

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