Urgency drives Congress to act before program expires
The Fire Grants and Safety Act looks to be the 118th Congress’ only chance to address the popular Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program, which funds training and apparatus purchases, and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program, which helps fire departments hire and retain personnel programs.
The Senate on Thursday passed a bill to reauthorize the federal grants, with only Republican Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul voting against it.
Now, only four months into the session, it’s already up to the House to complete the task.
The legislation would extend the programs through fiscal year 2030 and require both a federal audit and report on barriers preventing fire departments from accessing federal funds as well as a separate audit of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA).
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) introduced the bill to prolong the federal grants. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.) cosponsored the legislation with colleagues from the Congressional Fire Services Caucus. Carper cited wildfires in Alaska and a fatal fire in his state to emphasize the importance of these programs across the country. In 2021 and 2022, the SAFER and AFG programs provided almost $3 million in funding to Delaware fire departments alone, Carper said.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others expressed urgency after 29 fire emergency service groups warned Congress that fire departments are underfunded and understaffed, so passing the bill without delay would be crucial, he said.
Schumer visited a New York firehouse during the Easter recess to press the point and call for a “clean” extension of the programs, meaning Senators would not get to modify Peters’ bill with amendments. Suggesting that “the Senate will hit the ground running” upon returning to Washington for the spring work period, Schumer made good on that pledge, as the Senate rejected six amendments on roll call votes.
Notably, the bill received unanimous support in a preliminary vote to expedite the process.
One modification by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would have made grants unavailable to fire departments that dismissed firefighters for not getting a COVID-19 vaccine and restore eligibility only if they were reinstated. Paul argued that releasing them violated their freedom to make their own medical decisions. In his arguments, Paul also focused on the increasing cost of federal subsidies for local fire and EMS.
Another modification, this one by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), would have transferred all remaining unobligated state and local COVID funds to offset a portion of the cost of the bill.
Efforts to preserve Peters’ bill were bipartisan. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said that nearly half of the country’s fire stations need major repairs. “Forty-six percent of them do not have systems that prevent our first responders from being exposed to mold or cancerous carcinogens,” he observed. Peters opposed authorizing a new grant program at FEMA to fund fire station construction, suggesting instead a standalone bill and funding source.
Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) recently announced funding to upgrade the East Granby Fire Department's safety equipment under AFG. And he’s not alone. Politicians are understandably quite fond of such announcements. Taken together with statements just in the last month from Virginia’s Senators, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Congressional Fire Services Institute, the International Association of Fire Chiefs and others, it is easy to see that the programs are considered a crucial funding source for fire departments nationwide.
“It is clear that, without these grant programs, many fire departments, especially those in smaller or more rural communities, would simply not be able to invest in their vehicles, equipment, or training that they need to protect their communities,” Peters said floor remarks in March.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) highlighted the need to address the issue of firefighter cancer and proposed the Honoring Our Fallen Heroes Act to provide benefits for firefighters who become disabled or die from cancer as a result of their service. Klobuchar and others advanced a bill in 2018 to create a national firefighter cancer registry. [Read next: What would you do to save a firefighter?]
Peters’ bill was reintroduced this year after the 117th Congress failed to extend program authorizations until 2030. That bill and the pending legislation could increase authorized funding for USFA from $76.5 million to $95 million.
“We worked with our Republican colleagues and the ranking member of the relevant committees to allow Republican amendments, and, in turn, our Republican colleagues are supporting us moving forward on this important legislation,” Schumer said concluding debate. “It is a good thing, and I hope this model continues.”
The Fire Grants and Safety Act will have to clear a fiscally conservative House before getting to President Biden, who strongly supports the bill.
Read coverage about how the political balance of power affected the last reauthorization, here.
Check out program pages for information and application, here.
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