Grants to bolster fire departments with personnel and equipment are more helpful and plentiful in the years since Sept. 11, 2001, but competition for the funds is more intense, region officials said. For years fire departments were a distant second to police in available grants, but that changed substantially after the attack on the New York trade center, Walker County, Ga., Fire Chief Randy Camp said.
The federal funds, previously from the Federal Emergency Management Agency but now through the Department of Homeland Security, have provided critical assistance for cash-strapped fire departments in Northwest Georgia and Southeast Tennessee.
“Grants have been a lifesaver for us,” Mr. Camp said. “Funding for turnout gear, self-contained breathing apparatus has allowed us to maintain a level of service without seeking added funds from residents at the local level.”
Meigs County, Tenn., Emergency Management Agency Director Tony Finnell said, though, once a fire department has been awarded one or two grants, it seems the federal funds are more difficult to land.
“Grants have helped us tremendously with $118,800 in 2004 for a firefighting vehicle, $92,000 in new self-contained breathing apparatus units and smaller local grants that add up over time,” he said.
Mr. Finnell said Meigs County won federal grants in 2004, 2005 and 2007. The Meigs Fire/Rescue Department operates five stations in the rural county.
Volunteer fire departments in Tracy City, Tenn., and Kimball, Tenn., have received post 9/11 federal grants. Tracy City was awarded a safety grant of $45,914 in 2002 and $143,833 for fire equipment in 2003.
Many regional departments were awarded grants, including in Tennessee: Dayton, $47,000; Cleveland, $51,000; Bradley County Volunteer Fire Department, $213,000; and Athens, $76,900.
The grants were designed to get departments up to speed.
The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants are the fire department equivalent of the earlier Community Oriented Policing Services grants, which funded additional officers but tapered off the financial support over several years.
The added firefighters must be retained and fully funded locally at the end of the grant period.
Other Homeland Security assistance for fire departments includes the Fire Prevention and Safety grants and another for fire equipment and capital outlays.
Fort Oglethorpe Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Doug Flury said about 70 units of self-contained breathing apparatus were acquired with a $119,000 grant in 2004. He said the department has sought other grants, too.
“We are required for the SAFER grant to add personnel every year, but the competition is fierce, and we seem to get eliminated from consideration toward the end,” he said.
Mr. Camp in Walker County said a 2005 grant for $427,000 through the Assistance to Firefighters program, known as FIRE, positioned his department to purchase 124 new individual air units and to upgrade 75 old models.
“We also received a $285,000 hazmat truck,” he said.
Chief Camp said, though, the economy is making it difficult for many smaller fire departments to meet the requirements to win and keep grants.
“It’s hard to meet standards of adding a fourth employee per engine for 24-hour coverage when fuel costs to operate our department jumped $30,000 this year,” he said.
He said available funding for SAFER grants has been increased to $190 million, but requests total $1.2 billion.
There are other grant opportunities, but agencies have to be innovative.
Fire departments and other emergency service organizations in Georgia’s Catoosa, Walker and Dade counties will receive a boost in communications capabilities with a $5.77 million Homeland Security grant awarded in April.
“Our three counties had the vision to move forward with a regional radio system grant request, and we were successful,” Catoosa Sheriff Phil Summers said when the grant was announced.