Two federal grants offered to fire departments will expire in early fall if Congress fails to renew them, and one Capitol Hill leader wants his colleagues to act on them soon.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, held a virtual news conference March 2 to discuss his concerns over the possible end of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program. Both of these grants will sunset Sept. 30 if they are not reauthorized beforehand.
“[Schumer] said $700 million has been given to local fire departments through these grants since 1999, with $23 million provided just last year,” according to a story published March 2 by the Watertown Daily Times. “Fire departments across the state have relied on this funding for important equipment and staffing cover-age. In 2018, the Watertown City Fire Department took in $561,202 to hire four firefighters, and last month the West Potsdam Volunteer Fire Department received $106,666 to buy 14 oxygen devices. The Jamestown Fire Department in Chautauqua County received more than $1.8 million for eight new firefighters last month, and another $284,291 to buy new radios and a rope bailout system.”
We agree with Schumer that it’s vital for members of Congress to move on reau-thorizing these programs soon. They provide important funding for fire depart-ments throughout the country, many of which are operating under rather tight budgets as it is.
However, we would recommend some revisions to one of the programs. The SAF-ER grant has a provision that may trip up some municipalities as they negotiate new contracts with the unions representing their firefighters.
We saw this issue come up several times with the Watertown Fire Department. City officials pondered whether they should apply for the grant so they could bring additional firefighters onboard.
But the grant program mandates that the municipalities maintain no fewer than the number of personnel employed by the fire department at the time they received the funding for the entire duration of the grant. If they used the grant to hire five additional firefighters, they need to keep at least five extra firefighters on the payroll even if the ones originally hired move on to other departments.
A previous contract between the city of Watertown and the Watertown Profes-sional Firefighters Association Local 191 expired in 2014. Union members bickered with city authorities for years on a few points.
One primary concern was the minimum manning clause in the contract, which re-quires a certain number of firefighters on duty at all times. Union members demanded that the minimum manning provision remain at 15 firefighters while city negotiators argued for fewer personnel.
If the city accepted the SAFER grant, it could not reduce the number of firefighters on staff for the duration of the program. This would give union members little incentive to agree to a lower minimum manning clause if they knew the city was legally prohibited from dropping below a current level of firefighters for as many years as it received grant money.
Perhaps federal legislators should call for more flexibility in the SAFER grant so that municipalities would avoid this problem if when working on a new contract. One suggestion would be to allow local governments to opt out of the grant at the be-ginning of a 12-month period if sticking with it would interfere with contract nego-tiations with their firefighter unions.
If they received a grant for four years, they would be able to cancel the grant after two or three years, for example. Then if they felt the need to drop below the cur-rent level of personnel, they could do so.
Municipalities could then accept the SAFER grant while keeping open the possibility of ending it at a certain point. This is an important tool that local governments would find useful in planning their fire departments’ future.
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