House votes to expand popular fire department grants

WASHINGTON — Fire departments can pump more money under a revised $11 billion grant program approved Wednesday by the House of Representatives.

Dozens of California agencies, both large and small, already have received funding under the fire grant program that's grown dramatically since 2001. These same departments, and others like them, could gain additional aid under the new legislation.

"This is a very worthwhile program," Modesto Fire Chief Jim Miguel said via e-mail Wednesday. "Very few fire departments in California, and I am sure across the country, have been able to hire firefighters, and many have laid them off."

The House bill approved by a 395-31 vote authorizes about $2.2 billion annually for the next five years. It includes an amendment by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, that gives grant priority to high-unemployment areas.

"This will provide a little extra help," Cardoza said, although conservative skeptics raised concerns about awarding grants by something other than pure merit.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's fire grant program is similar to a COPS grant program that funds local police departments. Both are politically popular. Both have resisted periodic presidential budget-cutting efforts. Both provoke questions about federal intervention in a traditionally local responsibility.

The federal program includes two types of funding. Assistance to Firefighter grants pay for equipment, vehicles and training. In the past two years, 320 California agencies received a total of $44.8 million in these kinds of grants.

The local fire protection district in the small Sierra Nevada town of Murphys, for instance, received $48,380 last November for purchasing safety equipment.

A related grant program, dubbed SAFER, funds the hiring of firefighters. Last year, 22 California agencies received a total of $8.4 million in these types of grants.

The rural Mariposa County Fire Department, for instance, received $421,920 for help with recruiting new firefighters.

Fire departments love the grant programs. More than 60 percent of California's 823 fire and emergency service departments applied for federal funds last year, a Congressional Research Service study found.

"Congress has worked to become partners with fire departments across the country," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said.

The Senate still must consider its own bill, and the House approval is not the final step. Still, the 214-page bill and committee report largely track a fire department wish list.

The bill raises the maximum grant amounts and lowers matching fund requirements. It also strikes a politically delicate funding balance between career and volunteer firefighters, who sometimes clash.

The grants can get bigger. Modesto, Fresno and other cities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000 will now be eligible for grants up to $2 million instead of the $1 million under current law.

The cities will only have to match 10 percent of the Assistance to Firefighter grants, instead of the 20 percent under current law. The SAFER grant matching requirements will also be eased.

"The proposal to raise the grant limits and ease the matching funds is very important in the current economic crisis," Fresno Fire Chief Randy Bruegman said via e-mail.

Though Fresno is now considering closing two fire stations and imposing furloughs, Bruegman said that "when things improve," the department may again consider applying for federal aid.