Thursday, January 22, 2009

SAFER Grant- Be Careful What You Wish For

Yesterday on my blog at Firehouse Zen, I planned on commenting on the report by that Minneapolis is considering whether or not to accept their recently awarded SAFER grant. Well, before I had a chance to do so, it turns out my own department, Hilton Head Island, is also in the same boat. I was actually in a meeting with the Chief of Department when the story broke yesterday, which led to a lot of discussion then and today about this complicated situation.

What do you think? What is the responsible thing to do for both the taxpayers and the department? Trust me when I say we are looking at all the angles, but we'd love to hear what you think.
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  1. I've always maintained that each local community gets to choose the level of fire protection it wants to provide. If the workload is primarily EMS, it makes sense to have more companies with fewer personnel to respond to the more-common EMS calls more quickly. It would be nice to have more firefighters per company, but with response times designed to beat brain death and flashover (both in the 4 to 6 minute range)a large percentage of sprinklered buildings, low fire losses and only one fire fatality in the past 20 years, Hilton Head is in a much different situation than Minneapolis.

    Unless the department and local government are SURE that they will have the budget to continue the SAFER grant firefighter's employment over the long term, it may not be worth the testing, hiring, and training costs, time, and effort that it takes to get the potential firefighters ready for the job. That's just another way to say "Why use grant money to train someone else's future firefighters if you aren't sure that you'll have the money to retain them yourself?"

    Other fire departments that have hired, then later laid off SAFER grant firefighters when the local funding didn't magically appear.

    Worse, there has been at least one department that has stopped responding to fires due to a large budget overrun caused by accelerated hiring. "Arizona Fire Department Laid Off, Fire Station Closed"

    The bottom line is that you can't spend money that you don't have. If you're not sure that you'll be able to replace the SAFER grant money with local funds for payroll and benefits, just turning down the grant might situationally be the best option for some departments.


  2. ...and you are entirely correct in that our code compliance, demographics, etc. put us in a much more "interesting" situation than in other communities. Thus the conundrum of being offered the cash to subsidize something we all see as the higher standard but knowing that in several years, we have to make up that difference somewhere.

  3. Unfortunaly everyone seemed to dismiss fears the crash was gonna happen. Most of these applications were obvioulsy turned in before the current meltdown.

  4. the communities that apply for these grants know the requirements when they apply for them. If they now feel they cannot comply with those long-term conditions, one wonders why they applied in the first place. Tax funding doesn't disappear overnight. If that is their circumstance, then they need to hire better financial planners.

    Theses departments were allocated precious funds that are now not available to other fire agencies that need them and would put the to good use. Now the whole award process becomes an exercise in futility and the grant review process must now reallocate those unexpended funds to other agencies, thus costing everyone more time and money while delaying implementation of some of these "funded" programs.

    If I was on a grant review committee, I would seriously review and strongly question future requests from some of these same departments that are awarded these grants only to later turn down those grants.

  5. Asst. Chief Gary D. CraigJanuary 27, 2009 at 1:58 PM

    The point is that the SAFER grants aren't helping the departments that really NEED the help. In most cases the department that can afford those firefighters in 5 years could afford them without the help. For a myriad of reasons there are lots of departments closing because of diminishing funds. Where is the help for them?

  6. As the new administation has indicated, the "help" is going to Wall Street and the banking industry.
    In the fire service, strong leadership is its cornerstone. If the head of the fire department does not exhibit good leadership through sound decision-making, he doesn't last very long with that department and is pushed out by some manner. The fire service makes it very clear that they do not want bad leaders.
    But with the current "help" that the stimulus package is providing, the poor leaders remain, only to make MORE bad decisions with OUR tax money.
    So, to answer the question; our "help" is going to re-model offices, purchase corporate jets, pay year end bonuses to those who mismanage and the pork projects back home; none of which includes the fire service.
    Yeah; change is on the way!

  7. It's interesting that someone who posts anonymously would state that "tax funding doesn't disappear overnight". That simply isn't factual. Hilton Head Island, with its large seasonal tourist influx, traditionally funded a significant portion of fire-rescue and other services with accomodations taxes and other tourist dollars, and proportionally less property tax dollars. That makes a lot of sense for a place where the seasonal spike in call volume is due to visitors, not residents. It is unfair to the residents to require that they pay for services whose demand is seasonally driven by visitor call volume. That revenue did in fact experience a sudden decrease due to the economy, and after the grant application had been submitted.

    The accusation that these funds won't be available to other departments if turned down is not accurate, either. Either Hilton Head Island's elected officials will decide to use the grant funds, or those funds will become available for the next department on the list. The money won't just magically disappear.

    Complaining about a community that excercises prudent, thoughtful decisionmaking when faced with changed financial circumstances isn't a consistent arguement. Ditto for stating that turning down one grant should permenantly disqualify a department from future grants is overreaching as well. Situations change, and reacting prudently to change should generate applause, not sour grapes.

  8. Two comments I found interesting:

    "Tax funding doesn't disappear overnight. If that is their circumstance, then they need to hire better financial planners."

    I wish I could say that there are better financial planners out there, but our municipal finance department has been consistently recognized (and awarded) for over the last ten years for their financial acumen and abilities. As far as bean counters go, they're pretty good ones, and I appreciate all the support they've shown us so far.

    Over six months ago, our revenue stream looked good enough to consider that we could go through with our plan if we would be awarded a grant. However, the in the last two quarters, well, I don't mean to sound flip, but if you haven't read a headline lately, the nation's in a little financial crunch.

    Tax dollars actually do dry up overnight if your community sees a record increase in tax foreclosures (because people can't afford their taxes) and a simultaneous lack of real estate sales (of which our real estate transfer fee was a significant portion of revenue).

    As far as Chief Craig's comment goes, I certainly understand and appreciate your concerns; our organization has submitted for both FIRE act and SAFER grants for a number of years and our justification apperently (finally) met the criteria for the award. Are there other departments out there hurting more than ours? I would agree that there are many that would like that money. But we did need those funds, and we still do. It's just that the revenue stream has changed significantly and it would be imprudent for us not to consider ALL alternatives and long-term effect to our community before agreeing to accept the terms of the grant.

    I definitely appreciate all the feedback from readers of this blog and I can see how some people might misunderstand the situation, but there are a lot of facts that support our decision to look things over. Who knows, maybe we'll realize that this is a good move and go forward with things?

  9. Clarksville Tennessee also went through this situation in 2006. The city adopted the new addition of the NFPA in its entirety. The chief of the fire department applied for a safer grant for 15 new firefighters and was approved. Elections were also done that year with a new mayor being elected. Low and behold, the fire chief all of a sudden stated that the fire department could maintain with the level of staffing that was present at the time. The fire department was running 3 men per truck. After an uphill battle with the city council it was finally approved to accept the safer grant utilizing NFPA as a resource by stating that fire department personnel are supposed to follow all of the laws of NFPA except 1710 unto which the council voted on. Also, take into consideration that once approved for a safer grant, if you turn it down, you will lessen if not make impossible that another grant will be approved for your department. Research departments that have turned down grants and see how many have reapplied later down the road and see how many were approved. I think that you will be surprised with the findings. I couldn't find any.


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