WASHINGTON – Maryland fire officials plan to take advantage of a new federal program that will give local departments money for equipment and training, after the Bush administration Tuesday abruptly reversed its threat to cancel the program.
The turnabout came after an intense lobbying effort by firefighters and more than 100 members of Congress, led by Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville.
The Bush administration had said that the Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program, which was approved by Congress last year, “does not represent an appropriate responsibility of the federal government.”
But after a meeting with major fire service organizations Tuesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh declared the program “vital” and pledged to fund it in fiscal 2002 at this year’s level of $100 million.
“I think it is going to go a long way to helping. On the national basis, it is a drop in the bucket, but it is a very, very good start,” said Anne Arundel County Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds Sr.
Simonds and officials in fire departments in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties all said they would seek funds from the program. It will award grants in six categories: vehicles, firefighting equipment, personal protective equipment, training, health and wellness programs, and fire prevention education programs.
A spokesman for the U.S. Fire Administration, the branch of FEMA that will dispense the funds, said that new rules for applying for grants will take effect Wednesday and that all 30,000 or so fire departments across the country are eligible to apply. The agency expects between 10,000 and 12,000 applications during the April 2 to May 2 application period.
Although Allbaugh said he will request $100 million for next year, labor union critics pointed out that the original legislation authorized $300 million.
“It is still an insufficient response,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor union that represents 240,000 firefighters and paramedics in North America.
Schaitberger said his organization was “extremely upset over what the Bush administration had done” but that it is “pleased they’ve heard us loud and clear for the last couple of weeks since the budget proposal was released.”
He was particularly upset that while the administration’s budget recommended $4.5 billion for local law enforcement programs and agencies, it provided nothing for firefighters.
“This is a belated start by the federal government to provide resources to the nation’s fire and rescue services,” Schaitberger said.
Maryland fire officials said there is more than enough need.
Simonds said he will seek money to replace aging self-contained breathing apparatuses, a move he estimates will cost his department $1 million over the next two years.
He and others also said there is a need for health and wellness programs, noting that heart attacks are a leading killer of firefighters. Simonds said the grant money “would go a long way to help us curb that type of line-of-duty death.”
“The leading cause of firefighter deaths is in fact cardiovascular problems,” said Prince George’s County Fire Chief Ron Siarnicki.
Siarnicki also plans to seek funding for injury prevention programs in Prince George’s County schools.
“The teachers actually teach the fire prevention curriculum while we provide the course materials. It will become part of the regular curriculum,” he said. “It is an all-encompassing hazard mitigation program, including bike safety, home safety, pedestrian safety. It is a great program.”
Baltimore City Fire Department spokesman Hector Torres said his department has not identified a particular need, but pointed to very useful — but very expensive — equipment like thermal imagers, which allow firefighters to see in smoke-filled spaces. A hand-held imager “averages anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 a piece,” he said.
Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Administrator Gordon Aoyagi said his agency will seek grants to fund its wellness program, which will allow both career and volunteer firefighters to get more physicals. Currently, he said, volunteers only get a physical when they join and career firefighters get them depending on age.
Aoyagi also said grant money could be used for water supply in rural areas, such as providing more tankers and larger hoses to the many areas of the county not within a fire hydrant range.
Hoyer welcomed news of Bush’s reversal. Last week, he protested the proposed elimination of the program in a letter to Bush signed by 111 other senators and representatives.
“The president’s change of heart is an acknowledgement of the important role of firefighters,” Hoyer said in a news release.
“Local fire departments respond to every imaginable type of emergency in Maryland’s communities and communities across the country. They are in the front lines everyday and deserve help from the federal government,” he said.