WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., enthusiastically endorsed legislation Thursday that would strengthen local career and volunteer fire departments across the country. The SAFER Act of 2003 – which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response – authorizes over $7.5 billion over seven years for grants to increase the number of fire fighters nationwide so communities can meet minimum standards of protection against terrorism and other hazards.
“The firefighters and other first responders who rushed to the scenes of devastation on September 11, 2001, in Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania were heroic public servants who risked life and limb in order to do their jobs as well as they knew how,” Lieberman said. “Unfortunately, in some communities today, the number of firefighters is actually being reduced because of budget crises. We need more, not fewer, firefighters in communities today, and they must have the resources necessary to protect the rest of us in the war on terrorism. “The SAFER Act will enable us to ramp up our fire fighting forces by adding 10,000 additional hires per year for the next seven years.”
Under Lieberman’s leadership last year, the Governmental Affairs Committee voted to approve homeland security legislation that included $2 billion for hiring additional firefighters. That provision was defeated by Republicans on the Senate floor. Lieberman recently also proposed $7.5 billion in new funding for first responders in FY 2004 above the Administration’s call for $3.5 billion. One billion of the $7.5 billion would be dedicated to the SAFER Act in FY2004. He has also called for the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense to offer local law enforcers and fire fighters expanded access to special training on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weaponry.
According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, the shortage of fire fighters has reached crisis proportions. Two-thirds of all fire departments do not have adequate staffing, falling below the accepted industry standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association. IAFF estimates that 75,000 additional fire fighters are needed to bring staffing up to minimally acceptable levels of safety and effective response. Almost every investigation into fire fighter fatalities conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health over the past decade identified inadequate staffing as either the primary cause or a significant contributing factor to the death of a fire fighter.
Under the SAFER Act, introduced Wednesday by Senators Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va.., a new office would be established to administer the four-year grants within the U.S. Fire Administration, located within the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Grantees are required to commit to retaining the fire fighters for at least one year beyond the termination of their grants. Total funding over four years for the hiring of a career fire fighter may not exceed $100,000, unless the administrator of the program provides a waiver.
Funds shall not be used to supplant state or local funds, or in the case of Indian tribal governments, funds supplied by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The legislation has a 10% local matching requirement in the first year, and matching requirements can be waived.