The COVID-19 pandemic is straining fire department budgets across the country. With so many businesses closed, municipal budgets are suddenly starved for tax revenue. Restrictions on large gatherings have also choked volunteer departments that rely on bingo nights, barbeques, and similar fundraisers. For departments with career firefighters, finding the budget to maintain payroll has always been a challenge and the pandemic is raising the alarm for massive layoffs.
In recent years, the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant program (SAFER) has been an important source of Federal funding for departments looking to increase career staffing levels. For fiscal year 2019, SAFER is slated to provide $350 million in grants for hiring and recruiting firefighters. FEMA, which administers SAFER and other Federal grant programs for fire and EMS departments, recognized the budget stresses caused by COVID-19 and stepped in just before the FY2019 application deadline to waive certain provisions. For example, the usual cost share requirements for hiring projects were waived. Awards will be 100% Federally funded and departments won’t have to pay a penny out of pocket. The full list of changes can be viewed in this official bulletin, IB-450. While these changes currently apply only to FY2019 awardees, what might we expect going forward, especially if the financial fallout from COVID-19 crisis persists?
One major change we might see relates to SAFER’s priorities for hiring. Since FY2016, SAFER has focused on funding projects that added more career firefighters to a department’s roster. However, given the scale of pending layoffs, the FY2020 SAFER program may instead provide a relief valve by changing the priorities to allow for projects that avoid layoffs or re-hire firefighters who have recently been laid off. The wheels of Congress are already spinning; On May 26, two Congressmen from Illinois wrote to FEMA encouraging the agency to allow SAFER funds be used to prevent imminent layoffs. If implemented, the priorities could resemble many aspects of the SAFER program from FY2009 to FY2015. Stay tuned!
Congress could also choose to expand SAFER’s funding level as part of a future stimulus bill. The CARES Act provided $100 million for a supplemental Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) round which closed last month to fund COVID-19 PPE expenses, so there’s already a precedent. Both the IAFF and IAFC have also called for Congress to pass the HEROES act which includes additional funding for SAFER and AFG. In addition, the IAFC’s legislative action center is lobbying Congress to increase SAFER and AFG up to $5 billion each. Although Congress might not approve $10 billion in new funding for these programs, we wouldn’t be surprised if they agree to a meaningful increase. It’s also certainly possible that the traditional requirements related to cost share, non-supplanting, and maintenance of budget could be waived again for FY2020 applications, as these would be relatively straightforward for FEMA to implement.
No matter what changes are in store for FY2020 applications, the objective of SAFER will always focus on helping departments meet the staffing and response time standards per NFPA 1710/1720. If your department is considering a SAFER project to hire firefighters, your application must demonstrate that the positions funded by SAFER will improve or maintain compliance with these standards. Additionally, volunteer and combination departments can use SAFER to apply for funds to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. Given the potential for major changes to the SAFER program, now is a good time to begin planning for different application scenarios. While there’s no doubt SAFER is a complex grant program, Firehouse Grants can guide you through the options, help design a high-priority project, and prepare the highest quality application for your department.