February 15, 2012 | Issue Brief on Homeland Security
FYI: Heritage WebMemos are now called Issue Briefs.
Senator Joseph Lieberman (I–CT) filed an amendment to reauthorize the ineffective fire grant program to the federal transportation bill, aptly named the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (S. 1813). The amendment is a revised version of the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S. 550), and it reauthorizes a grant program that has significant shortcomings.
Ineffective Fire Grants
Fire grants, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), encompass a number of grant programs. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program subsidizes the routine activities of local fire departments and emergency management organizations. The Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) grants fund projects to improve the safety of firefighters and the public from fire and related hazards. Created in late 2003, the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants are intended to increase staffing levels by funding the salaries of career firefighters and paying for recruitment activities for volunteer fire departments.
The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis evaluated the effectiveness of fire grants by matching fire grant award data to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, an incident-based database of fire-related emergencies reported by fire departments. Using panel data from 1999 to 2006 for more than 10,000 fire departments, the evaluation assessed the impact of fire grants on four different measures of fire casualties: (1) firefighter deaths, (2) firefighter injuries, (3) civilian deaths, and (4) civilian injuries.
The Heritage evaluation compared fire departments that received grants to fire departments that did not receive grants. In addition, the evaluation compared the impact of the grants before and after grant-funded fire departments received federal assistance.
Fire grants appear to be ineffective at reducing fire casualties. AFG, SAFER, and FP&S grants failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths, or civilian injuries. Without receiving fire grants, comparison fire departments were just as successful at preventing fire casualties as grant-funded fire departments.
Exacerbating Existing Problems
Lieberman’s amendment would encourage local firefighter departments to become increasingly dependent on federal funding. The amendment would also bolster the false public perception that basic fire services are a federal responsibility. This would prompt local officials who fail to devote adequate resources to fire services to shift accountability for firefighting to the federal government. The amendment’s provisions include these specific shortcomings:
An Absent Federal Homeland Security Function
As currently written, the amendment continues the fire grant program’s lack of focus on fulfilling a federal homeland security function. It continues to focus fire grants on subsidizing the routine operations of basic fire services.
A 2007 report by the National Academy of Public Administration acknowledged that “basic fire incidents are usually well-handled in the U.S. and have been for some time, whereas large-scale, complex incidents are less well addressed and usually require cooperation of organizations and across jurisdictions.” However, the fire grant program “mainly funds local entities and isolated projects not tied to improving regional capabilities.”
In addition, fire grants have been awarded for highly questionable purposes. In September 2009, FEMA awarded a fire grant worth nearly $1 million to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a scandal-plagued organization linked to voter fraud and other potentially criminal activities. FEMA officials have since withdrawn the grant award to ACORN.
By subsidizing firefighter salaries, the SAFER grants supplant rather than supplement state and local responsibilities. In addition, the AFG grants are routinely used to purchase vehicles and equipment used for routine activities, such as pumpers, tankers, self-contained breathing apparatuses, and Personal Alert Safety Systems. While these items are important to providing basic fire services, federal funding of these items merely replaces local responsibilities. Federal assistance for the purchase of interoperable communication equipment and training to help local fire departments from different jurisdictions to coordinate responses to large-scale catastrophic incidents, such as natural disasters and acts of terrorism, is a more appropriate use of federal resources.
Lieberman’s amendment reauthorizes a grant program that has significant shortcomings. It continues a grant program that has failed to reduce fire-related deaths and injuries of firefighters and civilians. It is specifically designed to encourage local fire departments to become increasingly dependent on federal funding. As currently drafted, the legislation fails to reorient the fire grants toward fulfilling a federal homeland security function. Instead, fire grants would continue being almost solely focused on subsidizing the routine operations of basic fire services.
David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.
David B. Muhlhausen, “Do DHS Fire Grants Reduce Fire Casualties?” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 09-05, September 23, 2009, at http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/09/do-dhs-fire-grants-reduce-fire-casualties.
Lennard G. Kruger, “Assistance to Firefighters Program: Distribution of Fire Grant Funding,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, May 8, 2009, p. 2, table 1, at http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/RL32341_20080806.pdf (February 15, 2012).
James Kunde, Paul D. Brookes, Glenn Corbett, Harry Hatry, Bruce D. McDowell, and Darrel W. Stephens, “Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program: Assessing Performance,” National Academy of Public Administration, April 2007, p. 92, at http://www.napawash.org/pc_management_studies/Fire_Grants_Report_April2007.pdf (February 15, 2012).
Audrey Hudson, “Firefighters Stood to Lose Grant to ACORN,” The Washington Times, October 7, 2009, at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/oct/07/firefighters-lose-large-grant-to-acorn/ (October 19, 2009).
Tony Romm, “FEMA to GOP: We Never Gave Grant to Award,” The Hill, October 7, 2007, at http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/62021-fema-halts-acorn-grant-gop-lawmaker-praises-decision (October 19, 2009).
While financial supplanting of federal funds for local funds is supposedly not allowed for fire grants, the federal funding of these grants is also another form of supplanting because the federal government is taking over the traditional responsibility of local government for funding the routine operations of local fire departments.