Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program Critical for the Volunteer Fire Service

This year the NVFC asked Congress to restore funding for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program, the Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grant program, and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) to higher levels than provided in recent fiscal years. This article, focusing on the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, is the first in a series discussing in detail why each of these programs is so important.

Earlier this year the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) joined with other national fire service organizations in asking Congress to restore funding for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program and other key federal programs that benefit fire and EMS agencies. The NVFC recently called on our members to join us in asking Congress to provide $405 million in FY 2017 for AFG, the same level of funding that was made available in FY 2011. Hundreds have taken action already, and it appears to be having an impact based on feedback from House and Senate appropriations committee staff, who report hearing from members of Congress who support the program.

Whether or not that support translates into an increase for AFG, let alone full restoration to $405 million (Congress provided $345 million in FY 2016, an increase of $5 million over the previous year’s funding level) remains to be seen. President Obama asked Congress to reduce funding for AFG by $10 million this year, and the administration budget request includes significant cuts to other FEMA grant programs. With that as a starting point, supporters of AFG and FEMA’s other local responder grant programs have our work cut out for us.

AFG is the most significant source of federal funding for the volunteer fire service. Last year volunteer fire departments received nearly $100 million through AFG to purchase apparatus, equipment, and training, all of which is desperately needed based on data from the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) most recent fire service needs assessment report (Third Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service, NFPA, 2011):

There are approximately 9,000 fire engines in use in the United States that are at least 30 years old. Nearly two thirds of these engines are used by primarily volunteer departments serving communities with populations of 2,500 or fewer residents. The NFPA estimates that another 1,000-2,000 in-service engines reach that age every year.

61 percent of fire departments serving communities with populations of 2,500 or less equip at least some personnel with self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that is more than 10 years old. 69 percent of departments serving communities of that size equip at least some personnel with personal protective clothing that is more than 10 years old.

More than 17 percent of departments protecting communities with populations of 2,500 or less report having personnel engaged in structural firefighting without certification. Nearly 30 percent of departments serving communities of that size report having “some” or “no” personnel with formal training engaged in structural firefighting.

AFG is a lifeline for smaller fire departments that cannot otherwise afford to replace worn out gear and apparatus or keep up with increasing training requirements. Over the past five years, even as Congress has reduced support for AFG, the cost of standard air packs and pumper trucks increased by approximately 15 percent while the cost of protective clothing increased by nearly 12 percent. The result of decreased funding combined with increased cost has been fewer grant awards and far less grant dollars flowing to volunteer fire departments.

In FY 2009 Congress provided $565 million for AFG. That year, 2,829 volunteer fire departments received grants totaling $217 million. Three years later, after AFG funding was reduced to $337.5 million, volunteer departments only received 1,079 grants for $89.3 million.

Restoring funding to AFG would also benefit the Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) grant program, which receives 10 percent of the AFG appropriation. FP&S grants enhance the safety of the public and firefighters from fire and related hazards. In FY 2015 for the first time fire departments will be able to apply for a FP&S “micro grant” of $25,000. As noted in a recent article published in FireRescue1, this should benefit small departments. The NVFC has advocated for micro grants at AFG/SAFER/FP&S criteria development as a way to help more agencies benefit from the programs even as funding has been cut in recent years.

In asking Congress to restore some of the funding that has been stripped away from AFG in recent years, the NVFC hopes to increase assistance to volunteer and small combination fire departments. If you haven’t already contacted your U.S. Representative and Senators to ask them to provide $405 million for AFG in FY 2017 please use the NVFC’s Engage service to do so today!