Amid unprecedented revenue shortfalls, first responders need federal funds to continue providing essential services, emergency preparedness.
As Congress continues to negotiate the next federal COVID-19 relief package, Maryland U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin yesterday urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to boost funding and provide more flexibility for local firefighter departments through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants and Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG) programs.
As previously reported on Conduit Street, the recently-released HEALS (Help, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools) Act, the Senate’s draft of the next COVID-19 stimulus package, does not include any new aid for state and local governments. The Senate proposal also provides $270 million less for the SAFER and AFG programs than the House-passed HEROES Act.
SAFER grants support the recruitment and retention of firefighters. AFG grants help firefighters and other first responders obtain critical resources for protecting the public and emergency personnel from fire and related hazards.
“Our communities count on first responders as the first line of defense in protection and emergency response. These frontline workers are operating in environments that place them at high risk of COVID-19 exposure, and they deserve proper protection and support,” said Senators Van Hollen and Cardin.
County leaders from across Maryland have called for a waiver of the requirements for local matches to existing and future SAFER and AFG grants. Waiver requests submitted by the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) have been unsuccessful.
“In Maryland, many local volunteer fire departments expect drastically reduced collections and donations from their respective communities. Already, two Baltimore City fire stations are facing closure because of the financial strain caused by the pandemic, said Senators Cardin and Van Hollen.
According to a letter from Senators Cardin and Van Hollen:
We urge your support for the following:
- Include $500 million each for Assistance to Firefighter Grants (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants.
- Require that the Secretary of Homeland Security waive the cost-share and maintenance of expenditure requirements for Assistance to Firefighter Grants for reimbursement of COVID-19-related expenses through FY21.
- Require that the Secretary of Homeland Security grant waivers to SAFER grant recipients for employee retention to aid staffing shortages through FY21 and retroactively require that the Secretary grant such waivers for FY18, FY19, and FY20 SAFER funds.
State and local governments now responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and consequent economic downturn are faced with historically unprecedented revenue shortfalls. Budgets will undoubtedly come under stress and sacrifices may have to be made. But we cannot afford to cut corners on emergency preparedness to save costs. Firefighters provide our communities with essential insurance against the damage of fire emergencies. Fire is a risk to lives, property, and infrastructure that is real and deserving of our consideration even as we grasp with a viral outbreak. Substantial portions of the labor involved come from the service of dutiful volunteers.
Your support for these requests would provide significant relief to fire departments in both urban and rural jurisdictions. In a public health and now economic crisis unlike any other, Maryland desperately needs federal funding that can help alleviate budget shortfalls while also ensuring that critical services such as fire protection and emergency response are not put in jeopardy.
Communities across the nation are relying on their first responders to weather this national crisis. Your support of these requests is critical to ensuring that the next relief package provides the resources our first responders need to meet that challenge.