Senate Panels OKs renewal of Fire Fighter programs

WASHINGTON—By unanimous bipartisan vote, the Senate committee that handles fire fighter issues approved renewal of two federal aid programs for fire fighters. It also increased the maximum the feds could allot to the programs, but actual amounts will be less.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee sent the measure, S829, to the floor on July 11. And while the panel praised the grants, it said the federal Homeland Security Department must exercise better oversight over local fire departments to ensure they really use the money to buy new equipment and hire more fire fighters.

The two grant programs, SAFER and Assistance to Firefighters, are key causes for the International Association of Fire Fighters. Each program is getting $750 million in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

S829 set a maximum spending limit of $8.4 billion combined for the two programs from fiscal 2018, which starts this October, through fiscal 2023. Actual spending, though, will be closer to $5.9 billion over those years, the bill report says.

IAFF is the key backer of the two grant programs, which usually draw bipartisan support. The SAFER grants help local departments buy and update fire trucks, EMS vehicles and other equipment. The assistance grants let them hire more fire fighters.

The need is great, the lawmakers noted. The National Fire Prevention Association, which sets standards for fire departments, wants each department to have a minimum of four fire fighters per truck per run. But 51 percent of U.S. cities with 250,000-499,999 people fail that four firefighters-per-run standard. So do 80 percent of cities of 50,000-99,999 people.

The day after the Senate panel’s OK, Capt. John Niemiec, president of the Fairfax County Fire Fighters, told the House subcommittee that handles fire fighter bills,  the grants helped improve his department and others nationwide. The U.S. has 30,000 departments.

Niemiec called the improvements “remarkable” and said they “would not have been possible” without the grants. He also said they’re needed now more than ever, since Fire Fighters do more than just battle blazes – and they answered 32 million calls in 2015, the last year figures are available.

“In almost every community, our duties encompass a broad range of emergency services including structural fire fighting, airport fire and rescue services, wild land fire fighting, basic and advanced levels of emergency medical services, rescue operation in high-angle, swift water, and technical environments, terrorism and hazardous materials response.”

The down side is the lax federal oversight. The Senate panel quoted the department’s inspector general. He reported 64 percent – 243 of 479 – fire fighting hiring grant recipients “did not comply with guidance and requirements to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.” That led to $7.1 million, out of $50 million total, in questionable spending. And 63 percent of the 139 SAFER recipients flunked, with $18.4 million in questionable spending, out of $72 million total.

Source: PAI