In a previous post, I noted that IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger hinted at increased funding to come for the fire service.

Unfortunately, last week the administration actually proposed reducing the AFG program by 70 percent. Although this was "offset" by significant increases in the SAFER grant, it was hardly sounded like the increase in funding Schaitberger promised--overall, as National Volunteer Fire Council Chairman Philip Stittleburg notes, it funds SAFER and AFG at less than 30 percent of their authorized level.

Because both Obama and Biden have been very vocal in their support of the fire service, I found myself wondering whether the administration had just made a huge miscalculation, failing to understand the complexities of the SAFER grant and why it's not an attractive option for many departments, even those in desperate need of additional personnel. And even if they understood that SAFER grants are not for every community, it seemed they'd overlooked the fact that more personnel means increased need for equipment, apparatus, testing, training, etc. I began to hope that the rounds of negotiations and discussions that invariably follow budget proposals would correct this problem, as has occurred in previous administrations.

So I was surprised to read today from the NVFC that DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is claiming that it was input from firefighters that led to the President's seemingly misguided budget request.

The NVFC reported: "In budget hearings before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee on May 12 and 13, Napolitano said that feedback she has received from fire departments and local governments indicates that staffing is a more pressing concern than equipment and training".

Now, I can understand how in a survey of top fire service concerns, staffing would be toward the top. But as the NVFC's post makes clear, a mere look at the numbers would have shown how important AFG is in comparison: "More than 21,000 fire departments applied for approximately $3.2 billion in AFG funding last year, compared with just over 1,300 departments that applied for less than $600 million through SAFER." I didn't check those numbers, but assuming they're accurate, that's a huge difference that shouldn't have been easily overlooked, even if fire departments were stressing their need for additional staffing.

At this point, beyond simply hoping this mess gets cleared up in the next few rounds, I'm wondering if this wasn't a big misunderstanding but simply a result of the administration's current focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. Which I'm all for, of course, but such a black-and-white approach will certainly leave some important programs underfunded.

On the surface, I'm not sure what the better solution would have been; perhaps shifting the funding more equally between the two programs?

So you tell me: Does the administration know something I don't (well, obviously they DO, but you know what I mean!)--or has a focus on staffing over other priorities actually hurt the fire service in this budget?

Shannon Pieper is managing editor of FireRescue magazine.

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Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on May 18, 2009 at 10:14am
I have said it before and I will say it again;
the largest segment of the fire service has the weakest voice.
Yes; this push for SAFER funding and NOT training is a push by the new administration to create a poster child for their jobs initiatives. But, their plan doesn't address equipment deficiencies or training issues.
Obama's administration is going for the quick wins and 5 years from now, someone will be dealing with the layoffs of SAFER hires.
And if "other than career" departments want to be heard, then they may have to organize into a powerful lobby or a union of volunteers.
But, somehow; we need to get Washington's attention. They seem to believe that the road to the fire service goes through the 22% that make up career departments in this country.
The other 78% will have to make do.
Comment by Tiger Schmittendorf on May 17, 2009 at 7:59pm
Shannon -

I too was confused by the logic applied to gutting the AFG grants while super-sizing the SAFER grants. While I am a firm believer in (and successful recipient of) SAFER grants; one must argue that the two go hand-in-hand. Sufficient staffing without adequate training is really not sufficient at all. Adequate staffing with inadequate equipment is just that: inadequate.

Due to reduced state training support, we are already struggling to meet the demand for training of our county's firefighters. We estimate that we're only meeting 50-60% of the need, at best. I can't think of a better problem to have than to have more volunteers than we can train, but it's becoming an increasing problem that has dramatic and negative effects on our ability to recruit and retain.

To make matters better or worse, depending on your perspective, I recently wrote and secured a $500k SAFER grant for the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters in our county. We plan to be successful. Unfortunately, DHS didn't agree with our plan and cut the training component out of our grant award. Now we plan to have even more new recruits that we don't have the funding to train. It proves the theory that no good deed goes unpunished.

While I don't feel that grants are the solution for every challenge we face, certainly SAFER without AFG gives us quantity but not quality. Whether your department is career or volunteer, it's easier to overcome low quantity with high quality than it is to work the opposite side of that equation.

I too will be interested to see how this all shakes out. Thanks for bringing the discussion to the forefront.

Stay safe. Train often.
Comment by Trainer on May 16, 2009 at 7:38am
Shannon, one of my opinions I fell as you, is this an attempt to answer the cries for manpower without them fully understanding the workings of the safer grant? My next idea is that union leadership has proven historically to fight every piece of legislation that benefits volunteers and with the democrats being in power…well you connect the dots. Now I’m not looking for a fight, or a paid vs vol thing, merely pointing out that union leadership has done this before, and I also feel they have a louder voice in DC then the vols. I only hope the ladder is not true as a widening of the rift between the two does not need to grow.

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