EIIP Virtual Forum Presentation – April 21, 2004

Assistance to Firefighters Grant
Reauthorization Act of 2004

Stephen P. Austin
Fire Service Advisor
Congressional Fire Services Institute

Amy Sebring
Moderator, EIIP Technical Projects Coordinator

The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. A raw, unedited transcript is available from our archives. See our home page at http://www.emforum.org

[Welcome / Introduction]

Amy Sebring: On behalf of Avagene Moore and myself, welcome to the EIIP Virtual Forum! We are pleased to have this opportunity to bring you a session on the Assistance to Firefighters Reauthorization Act of 2004.

I have the pleasure of introducing today's speaker, Stephen P. Austin. Steve is a 33-year veteran of the State Farm Insurance Companies and he is involved with national fire service issues serving as the Director of Governmental Relations for the International Association of Arson Investigators. He also serves on committees of the National Fire Protection Association, International Association of Fire Chiefs among others and today is representing the Congressional Fire Services Institute where he currently serves as Fire Service Advisor.

Further biographical information is available on our background page, as well as links to related material you may find useful, in particular the house legislation and the last Needs Assessment that Steve will mention.

Welcome to you, Steve -- we are delighted to have you with us. I now turn the floor over to you to start us off, please.


Steve Austin: Good Morning, good afternoon, good night, no matter where you are in the world. It is good to be with everyone. I appreciate the opportunity to visit with you today about the Reauthorization of the Fire Act, legislation that has meant so much to fire departments in all of the United States, Territories and Tribal Lands.

If you are not familiar with the existing Fire Act, it is the program that provides competitive grants to fire departments direct from the federal government for training, equipment and fire prevention activities. Firefighters in over 8600 fire departments have received over $695 million since June 2003. Added to the grants received over the prior two years, many of the 32,000 fire departments have benefited from this excellent program.

Congress required a needs assessment in the present Fire Act. FEMA and the National Fire Prevention Association conducted that study. Copies are available at the USFA Web Site. The results were alarming and speak to the need of raising basic firefighting capabilities in many communities. The Fire Act allowed departments to increase those capabilities all across America.

Establishing a base line of readiness and keeping departments there helps fire departments respond to over 21 million calls annually. By creating this base line, fire departments can build to meet the needs of today's environment that now includes the necessity to respond to terrorist acts in addition to those traditional calls. No wonder that Congressman Curt Weldon the founder of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus calls firefighters America's domestic defenders.

Before I review the reauthorization process I want to take a moment to tell you a little about the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CSFI). You can visit the Institute at http://www.CFSI.org to learn about most federal activity in Congress or the Administration that involves fire and emergency services issues. CFSI supports the efforts of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus one of the largest bipartisan caucus comprised of members in the House and Senate who support fire and life safety issues.

CFSI is a nonpartisan educational organization that helps Congress connect with the fire service and provides the fire service education about issues that can impact the fire service from a federal level. Neither the institute nor the caucus seek or receive any federal funding. Guided by a National Advisory Committee made up of groups from the fire service and related public safety world, CFSI attempts to reach a consensus so that a consistent message may be delivered to Capital Hill.

One of the priorities of CFSI was the creation of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (the Fire Act) three years ago and the fire service groups and CFSI are busy as the reauthorization makes its way through congress. Perhaps for those that don't work in the legislative arena each day it would be good to review a couple of terms, authorization and appropriations. These terms are explained in detail at CFSI.org on the fire service legislative page.

[See also http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/RS20371.pdf ]

But for our purposes today, we can say that before Congress can spend any money a committee with jurisdiction in that area must authorize that specific program. Once a program is authorized, Congress may through another committee process, appropriate funds.

Most if not all programs are appropriated for a specified time. In this case the Fire Act was authorized for 3 years. Now the Fire Act must be re-authorized for another specific period or it will cease to exist at the end of the Federal Fiscal Year. With CFSI taking a nonpartisan role, fire service groups met and presented a White Paper to Congress entitled The American Fire Service Position Paper on the Reauthorization of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. That White Paper included a number of suggestions that have been agreed upon by the major fire service groups. These recommendations include:

* Granting the Secretary of Homeland Security Authority to Award Grants.

* Continue the Role of the National Fire Service Groups in the Criteria Setting and Review Process. This has allowed fire service people to set the guidelines for the grant application (within the confines of the legislation).

* Allow funding for Safety Research and Development, something sorely needed in the fire service.

* Factoring call volume and type into the criteria for grant eligibility, taking into consideration busy fire companies vs. smaller less active departments.

* Conduct a periodic needs assessment. To again be conducted by NFPA to measure our gains.

* Increase the size of the awards, allowing for bigger grants to bigger departments.

* Change certain matching provisions of the grants that have become problematic and difficult to reach

* Conduct annual reports so the success of the program may be measured.

After meeting with Congressional Staff, Members of Congress including leadership in both parties are working on drafting the reauthorization bill. The Senate is still drafting language and it is expected to introduce its version soon. The House has already introduced its version, HR 4107, that includes a number of the suggestions from the White Paper and some new and changed language.

Realistically, when a program is reauthorized it can be expected that Members of Congress will have their own ideas of what should or should not be in the bill. Since there are some changes from the agreed upon White Paper, fire service groups and others are carefully studying the language. CFSI is not taking a position on any of these additions or changes. CFSI however is working as it always does to create a climate where if at all possible a bill will be passed that is acceptable to everyone.

Specifically the changes are as follows:

The program is authorized at $900 million for the program in each fiscal year from 2005-2007. This is equal to the fiscal year 2004 authorization level.

Consistent with the existing authorization, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) will continue to administer the program.

The non-federal matching requirement for fire departments that serve 50,000 people or more is reduced from 30% to 20%. The match for smaller departments, serving less than 50,000, remains at 10%.

The cap on individual grant size is raised to $1 million for all departments, $2 million for departments that serve 500,000-1,000,000 people, and $3 million for departments that serve more that 1 million people.

Makes volunteer, non-profit emergency medical service (EMS) providers eligible to apply for grants. Approximately 3,000 municipalities maintain separate fire and EMS departments.

Under current law, only EMS departments that are a part of fire departments are eligible for funding. Caps the amount these entities may collectively receive at four percent of appropriated funds.

Includes volunteer non-discrimination language prohibiting a fire department that receives grant funds from discriminating against, or prohibiting its members from engaging in volunteer activities in another jurisdiction during off-duty hours.

You can download your own copy of the Bill by accessing Thomas.gov directly or from a link at CFSI.org.

That's a lot of material at one time and I am willing to answer as many questions as I can at this time about the process or the legislation. For that, I will turn the session back over to our moderator.

Amy Sebring: Thank you very much, Steve.

[Audience Questions & Answers]


Jennifer Vuitel: Could you give us an idea of what some of the successful grant applications included, like what areas, equipment, etc.?

Steve Austin: Good question, Jennifer – fire apparatus, portable equipment, protective gear like masks, coats and boots, training programs, and more.


Dan Morelos: Are these funds 100% matching?

Steve Austin: Dan, the match in the existing language is at 10% or 30% based on population served. There are proposals to change that in the new legislation – the exact percentage is still not agreed upon. I suspect there will be some match in the new legislation. The fire service groups recommended lowering the match.


Matt Burks: Are the funds available to EMS 4% of the $900 million or 4% of what the jurisdiction’s Fire Department receives? If it is 4% of the $900 million, what determines how much the individual EMS Department receives?

Steve Austin: Good question Matt. The 4% will come from the total money available in the grant. We have similar language now that caps fire apparatus at 25% and remember the entire 900 million might not get appropriated.


Regis Collins: What about communication equipment (i.e. radios, base stations) and medical equipment (i.e. AEDS)?

Steve Austin: All in there now if you are a fire department. I suspect if the EMS piece is included those items will be available, too, but that is only my opinion.


Jennifer Vuitel: What cannot be covered under the grant?

Steve Austin: Good question, Jennifer. There are a number of items and programs that are not covered. What is covered is published in the Federal Registry and on the USFA web page. Construction of new facilities is not covered.


Dan Morelos: If we are receiving funds from other grant sources, will that conflict with this grant?

Steve Austin: No, unless you get federal money and you want to apply it to your match.


Isabel McCurdy: Is this Act an incentive for those 3000 municipalities who have separate Fire-EMS to conglomerate?

Steve Austin: It wasn't intended to be that way, Isabel. I think that all along EMS as a third service was in the back of some folks’ minds; there just wasn't enough money in the first few years. The purpose was and is to raise fire suppression capabilities to an acceptable level.


Avagene Moore: Steve, you said the needs assessment results were alarming. At this point after three years of fire grants, where are we in the baseline of raising basic firefighting capabilities? Have we reached it? If not, how far are we away from the baseline?

Steve Austin: Avagene, we don't know yet, it has to be better because there has been lots of apparatus and equipment purchased. We will find out how we are doing if we get the follow up study that we propose in the final legislation. Let me say again – get the NFPA/USFA report. It is alarming just how much needs to be done out there.


Regis Collins: Steve, as many communities are beginning to form COGs (Cooperative Governments) how would this benefit or hinder the application for multiple communities with varied populations/resources capabilities?

Steve Austin: Regis, in combination systems consisting of a county fire department and independent volunteer companies, each company and the county can apply. What COGS need to do is figure out who is going to specialize in what area and then each department needs to submit an application. The draw back is that these are competitive grants and not everyone will get an award. The grants send money directly to the fire departments so the money is not going through a governmental body.


Dan Morelos: When can we expect to see the update (to include the new percentages) and where can I find more information?

Steve Austin: Dan, as we speak there is work in progress. We expect a Senate bill any day. Stay tuned to the CFSI.org and all the fire service web sites like firehouse.com and the others. Copies of all bills in Congress can be found on Thomas.gov.


Amy Sebring: I may have missed it earlier, but is the Fire Prevention and Safety part still in the current language? If so, does that also require matching funds?

Steve Austin: Great question Amy. I should have spoken about that earlier. The fire prevention portion of the grant program is a special provision that allows groups that have a fire prevention mission to seek funding for prevention activities that have a broader local, state and national perspective. We are working to eliminate the matching portion of those grants – they are capped at 5% of the total.


Dan Morelos: We are a non-profit agency. Realistically, what are our chances of receiving an award? We are responsible for managing the airport in our community. Our fire service is specialized – they specialize in crash, fire, and rescue.

Steve Austin: Dan I am not the final authority on this. There are published rules as to what is and what is not a fire department. I suspect if the EMS portion is signed into law, rules will be developed there, too.


Avagene Moore: Steve, as far as the grants that have been awarded, has an analysis been done to determine the percentage of funding going to apparatus and/or equipment versus training? I would think the terrorism threat might push the need for terrorism-specific training to the forefront.

Steve Austin: I don't know about a study as such, although DHS has all the raw data. If it was me Avagene, I wouldn't go after the anti-terrorism training money from this grant – you can get it from here if you wish – but I would want to get it direct for my political jurisdiction from the other federal funds where there is no match.


AK Miller: Is there a resource for fire departments trying to develop a grant request?

Steve Austin: Yes, AK. During the process – which now won't begin again for about a year – DHS conducts grant workshops in all the states. Ask for one and you will probably be directed to one in your area. I will tell you that this is a very user friendly on line grant application. It is quite unlike other applications you have been used to working with. It is set up as if you were convincing someone in your own department that there is a good reason to make a purchase.


Amy Sebring: I have one last question. Has CFSI or any other fire organizations researched any potential long-term funding solutions beyond this grant program?

Steve Austin: Many of the fire service groups talk about long term funding. Budget shortfalls in metro areas due to a declining tax base or other economic conditions really create a problem for public safety funding. Elsewhere folks often question how long the volunteer fire service can exist off of bake sales, bingo and boot drives. That is not to say that this burden should be passed on to the federal government. They do have a role – state and locals have the primary responsibility – but there needs to be a solution.


Amy Sebring: That's all we have time for today. Thank you very much, Steve, for your time and effort. Great job! We hope you enjoyed the experience. Please stand by a moment while we make some quick announcements.

Again, the transcript will be posted late tonight and you will be able to access it from our home page or the background page. We also have a great archive of transcripts, which you can access by topic from the home page.

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Thanks to everyone for participating today. Great questions and comments. We stand adjourned but before you go, please help me show our appreciation to Steve for a fine job.