Firefighters seek rough parity with police in virus aid efforts

Disparity shows why money appropriated by Congress doesn’t always reach recipients quickly

Fire departments say they've been shortchanged by lack of funding, red tape. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Fire departments say they've been shortchanged by lack of funding, red tape. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 27, 2020 at 7:00am

Police and firefighters weren’t forgotten when Congress passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package in March.

Within a week of the law’s enactment, aid began flowing to states and cities through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, run by the Justice Department. Much of that aid goes to police departments across the country, which have received more than $143 million so far, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of grant recipients.

But firefighters, who were promised $100 million, have yet to get a dime. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, requires a cumbersome peer review process for grant awards that can take months.

The result has been a frustrating wait for money designed to help fire departments buy personal protective equipment, thermometers, sanitizer sprayers and other material needed to fight fires during the pandemic.

“Our budgets have been decimated by supplies we’ve had to buy,” said Gary Ludwig, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, who also heads the fire department in Champaign, Ill. “We’re buying extra equipment we never had to buy before.”

The disparity in aid delivery between law enforcement and fire grants provides an instructive case study in why money appropriated by Congress doesn’t always reach its intended recipients in a timely fashion. The structure and administration of aid programs can determine who gets relief and who doesn’t when emergencies strike and speed matters.

“I whole-heartedly support the federal funding that our brothers and sisters in blue are receiving from Congress,” Ludwig said in a statement. “They need it during this national emergency, but so do our firefighters and paramedics."

Bureaucratic delays

The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, created in 2000, has no set geographical or needs-based formula to distribute aid, according to the Congressional Research Service. Instead, grant awards are determined by a peer review panel that considers the merits of each application.

FEMA, which runs the program, must abide by the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, an agency spokesperson said. That statute “requires several steps to developing the competitive program before issuing the Notice of Funding Opportunity, as well as several steps to reviewing each grant application prior to awarding funds,” the official said.

FEMA expedited the development and release of a grant application process “given the importance of releasing funds to first responders,” the official said. What normally would take six months was completed in a month.

Even so, FEMA gave fire departments until May 15 to submit applications. “Awards will be made as quickly as possible thereafter,” the official said, while offering no estimated delivery date.

The Byrne Justice grants, by contrast, enjoy a more streamlined administrative process. Grants are awarded by formula to states, based on each state’s population and number of reported violent crimes, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

Once a state allocation is determined, 40 percent of the money is then given directly to local governments, based on a three-year average number of violent crimes. The rest of the money can be used by the state police force or passed on to local governments through similar formulas.

Grants are awarded on a rolling basis and distributed between seven and 10 days after an application is received, according to a Justice Department official. The first Byrne award, a nearly $3.5 million grant to the state of New Hampshire, was made on April 3, just seven days after the aid package became law.

Of the $850 million for Byrne grants provided in the law, nearly $585 million has already been awarded to 665 recipients as of May 19, according to a review of the grants. Not all the money goes to police departments, however. 

The funds can be used for a wide variety of law enforcement activities, including court prosecutions, drug treatment programs, prisons, education, mental health and more. The Justice Department doesn’t track how much of the money goes to police forces, the official said.

Many of the awards are given to a state or a city, which can determine their law enforcement use. But more than $143 million has been awarded so far to city police departments or state public safety departments, a review of the grants shows.

The Justice Department made a “concentrated effort” to apply the funding formula and distribute money “as quickly as possible so that law enforcement and criminal justice officials can address immediate and serious challenges presented by the pandemic,” the official said.

'Tsunami' of layoffs

Speed matters, officials say, because the needs are urgent. Local and state government coffers have been bleeding revenue since the March economic shutdown imposed in most of the country to contain the pandemic. 

And local government budget cuts mean layoffs and furloughs for thousands of workers, in some cases including police and firefighters. Nearly 1,000 fire department employees have been laid off or furloughed since the pandemic began, and as many as 30,000 could be lost by next year, according to a survey conducted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

“What I’m hearing is a tsunami coming in firefighter layoffs,” said Ludwig, the association president and chief executive officer.

Many of those projected layoffs could be avoided, of course, with federal aid to state and local governments, even if the  money doesn’t come through direct grants to fire departments. Congress provided $150 billion for state and local aid in the March relief package and bipartisan support appears to be building for another round of aid, though the timing of any new legislation remains uncertain.

But police and fire advocates say more money is needed urgently and should not have to compete against other state and local needs. “Direct funding will ensure that the funds are properly used for law enforcement purposes and not diverted to other agencies with non-law enforcement missions,” said Steven Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, in a May 6 letter to congressional leaders.

Money for firefighters can come from two separate grants programs: the Assistance to Firefighters Grants, which fund equipment, and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, program, which funds hiring and retention.

While the fire chiefs had requested $1 billion for each program, the March aid package included only $100 million for the equipment grants and nothing for the SAFER grants.

In an April 13 letter to President Donald Trump, the fire chiefs association requested $5 billion for each grant program, and a waiver from the lengthy peer review process that can delay grant awards.

“Since the beginning of this crisis, we have documented over 1,000 firefighters and EMS personnel who are diagnosed with the coronavirus, approximately 5,000 who have been quarantined, and more than 20,000 who have been exposed,” Ludwig wrote.

The House passed a $3 trillion relief measure on May 15 that included more money for police and fire. That legislation included $300 million for more Byrne grants and $300 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services program, which funds separate grants to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.

Firefighters did even better. The bill would provide $500 million for the AFG equipment grants and $500 million for the SAFER personnel grants. But the bill is going nowhere in the Senate and bipartisan negotiations will be required for a new round of relief.

Even if that legislation had passed, it would hardly “scratch the surface” of what’s needed, Ludwig said. So in the meantime, he and other firefighters are waiting and coping with the pandemic. His own fire department in Illinois is seeking a grant of nearly $160,000.

“All the things we have to do to protect ourselves have to be in place,” Ludwig said. “We’re doing social distancing in the station. We’re eating six feet apart. We’re taking everybody’s temperature.”

But more money, he said, is critical. “We believe more will be needed for fire departments in the future to keep our communities safe,” he said.