There are several ways to help AFG and SAFER funding reach more volunteer and rural fire departments
Since its establishment in fiscal year 2001, the Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program has been reauthorized three times. The third and current reauthorization is the United States Fire Administration, AFG, and SAFER Program Reauthorization Act of 2017 (P.L. 115-98), which authorizes the program through fiscal year 2023.
Now, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced S-3592 – the Firefighter Staffing and Support Act – to nearly triple funding for recruitment and retention efforts via the AFG and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants programs over five years.
“The difficulty in recruiting and retaining personnel is an absolute crisis that has left fire departments and the communities they protect dangerously short-staffed,” Sanders said in a press release about the bill.
He added: “There are a lot of reasons why we are where we are. But in my view, one thing is entirely clear: Our firefighters, both volunteer and paid, put their lives on the line to protect our communities, but they are not getting the proper support and resources they need and deserve. It's time for that to change."
The Firefighter Staffing and Support Act would increase available federal funding to fire departments by more than 300%, reaching $12 billion. The legislation would also:
Let’s consider some key questions.
Sanders’ legislation would provide the opportunity for increased funding across the board to volunteer and career departments, but it appears that his primary concern is rural volunteer departments.
There’s certainly reason to be alarmed about the amount of federal funding going to both rural and volunteer departments. In its latest report issued in April 2019, the Congressional Research Service found that over a five-year period, the percentage of AFG grants going to volunteer departments had dropped by 12%, and the percentage of grant funding going to rural departments dropped by 8% in that same period.
My fear is that disparity would continue to grow even with the technical assistance funding that’s included in this legislation.
Many small rural and volunteer departments feel locked out of the AFG and SAFER grant process.
The application process is cumbersome and difficult to navigate. The guidelines for the applications are long and often hard to understand. The 2021 SAFER NOFO was 73 pages long, and the 2021 AFG NOFO was 84 pages. SAFER applications have narratives on top of narratives that appear to ask the same question over and over. Some departments simply don’t have the staff or the time to complete an application. What’s more, some rural departments lack internet access.
The proposed legislation contains $10 million in technical assistance to help departments apply for funding but does not indicate how this technical assistance will be delivered. FEMA dropped the regional workshops that they provided in the past, opting to go with webinars. Their thinking was that they could reach more departments this way. That is true to a degree, but it doesn’t take into account that many people still like to sit down and talk to someone in person to get their questions answered. And again, what about the departments that lack internet access.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that Senator Sanders wants to start funding fire and EMS at more realistic amounts than we have experienced for the last 10 years. The problem is how to get the funding to those who need it. Here are my thoughts:
Unfortunately, most applicants for AFG and SAFER grants don’t see the current application process as a way for FEMA to decide upon the most deserving grants but rather as a vehicle to cut down on the number of departments applying for financial assistance. That needs to change.
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