By James L. Nash
By most standards, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) assistance to firefighters grant program has been a huge success.
The program gives money to address a range of local fire department needs, including personal protective equipment for firefighters, fire prevention programs, emergency medical services and firefighting vehicles.
Last year FEMA gave away $100 million while receiving over $3 billion in requests. This year, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the FEMA agency that administers the grant program, will disburse $360 million to local fire departments across the country. The mission of USFA is to reduce life and economic losses due to fire and related emergencies through public education, training, technology and data research initiatives.
To learn more about this agency and the firefighters grant program, Responder Safety spoke with David Paulison, the head of USFA.
Paulison, who began his career as a rescue firefighter, rose through the ranks and has been chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department since 1992 until his appointment as U.S. Fire Administrator in December 2001.
Responder Safety: What are your goals for USFA?
Paulison: I have four goals. First is to reorganize the agency to make it more responsive to our customers, both internal and external.
Second, I want to reduce the number of deaths by fire in this country, currently around 4,000 each year. A huge proportion of those who die are over 65 or under 14, and I want to cut these fatalities by 20 percent.
We lose one firefighter every third day in this country. That's simply unacceptable. Most of these deaths are due to heart attacks and vehicle crashes, so they are quite preventable. My third goal is to bring these numbers down.
Finally, we need to develop a closer relationship between the fire community and the emergency management (EM) community. I think that's extremely important. The EM community often lacks staff and they need to understand that if they work with fire departments, they'll have those people all year long. And fire chiefs need to understand what emergency responders do.
If these two groups work together, we'll handle our disasters better.
RS: How does the firefighters grant program fit in with these goals?
Paulison: It fits in perfectly. Fire departments can apply for money in one of four different programs. One of those programs is firefighter safety, so this ties into my goal of reducing fatalities for these workers. Eligible activities here include personal protective equipment, firefighting equipment, training, wellness and fitness.
The money we spend here can be very cost-effective. I just got a letter from a fire chief who won a $30,000 grant last year for turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus. Right after they got the gear they had a major fire in the downtown of their community. Without this gear they couldn't have protected the adjoining structures. He felt they would have lost the whole downtown area.
So by spending $30,000, we saved millions in buildings and protected that local economy. Not only that, we protected those firefighters, because if I know firefighters, they would have tried to enter some of these burning buildings even without the right equipment.
RS: Were there any problems with the grant program last year?
Paulison: Well, aside from not having enough money, I'd say the biggest problem was the cumbersome grant application. We think we've corrected that this year by putting the application on our Web site, by simplifying the process, and by doing workshops around the country to help people learn how to apply. These workshops are very popular – they're usually packed to the gills.
As I said, this year fire departments can apply for one grant in any of four programs. Besides firefighter safety we have fire prevention, emergency medical services and firefighting vehicles.
RS: Do you have any advice for applicants?
Paulison: Yes I do. Write the grant as if you're writing to firefighters, because they're the ones who will be making the decisions, not federal officials. We're bringing people in from around the country to assess the applications. Don't write in legalese; write in the language of firefighters.
$900 Million for 2003?
FEMA's grant program for firefighters recently won a big vote of confidence in the U.S. Senate. The Senate appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the program appropriated $900 million for the popular initiative, a huge increase over the $360 million being given away this year.
But the House has taken no action yet, and a question mark hangs over the program, because Congress is still working out the details of the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). FEMA may, or may not, be placed in DHS, and this could have implications for the funding of the grant program as Congress has no way of appropriating money for a department that does not exist.
Divisions have surfaced among policy makers about placing FEMA in DHS because of worries that FEMA's traditional role in dealing with natural and conventional disasters might be subordinated to its new counter-terrorism responsibilities. In the midst of a massive government reorganization, accompanied by the expected political and bureaucratic infighting by big Washington players, it is not clear what will happen to FEMA, a relatively small independent federal agency.
The grant money awarded by USFA is supposed to address a range of local fire department needs, including personal protective equipment for firefighters, fire prevention programs, emergency medical services and firefighting vehicles.
"We're off to wonderful start in the Senate, thanks to bipartisan support for the program," commented Allen Caldwell, director of government relations for the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
In its brief history, the grant program has compiled an excellent track record, according to Caldwell.
"This is a model federal program because it gets the dollars where they will do the most good," he said. The chief of the fire department who puts together the grant application has to write out a detailed description of the needs. The application is then peer-reviewed by a panel of fire chiefs who assist FEMA. Community buy-in is ensured by requiring a co-payment of 10 percent for jurisdictions with a population less than 50,000, while larger cities must pay 30 percent.
Judging from the number of grant applications sent to FEMA, the need for firefighting equipment is enormous.
"We had 19,500 applications asking for a total of $2.2 billion this year, and only $360 million to give away," said Tom Olshanski, USFA's grant information coordinator. The agency is working hard to complete 5,500 awards by the end of December to begin to focus on next year's grant program. So far, 1,000 grants totaling $100 million have been awarded.
Although the policy community may see tensions between traditional emergency response and counter-terrorism, Caldwell and Olshanski discounted the problem.
Olshanski said that while the terrorist attacks last year were largely responsible for the big increase in federal money for local fire departments, the mission of the grant program is clear: build basic services.
"If you can't handle a multi-alarm fire, why even talk about terrorism?" asked Olshanski.
Caldwell agreed. "The better prepared a fire department is to deal with all risks and hazards," he argued, "the better able it is to deal with acts of terrorism."
For general information about the grant program, go to the USFA home page at http://www.usfa.fema.govwww.usfa.fema.gov.