By Michael Gwizdala
The Record, Troy, N.Y.
WASHINGTON — During a Zoom press conference Thursday afternoon, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer sounded the alarm that the main federal firefighter funding programs, the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Program, are at risk of being eliminated.
Hence, placing millions of funds for Upstate New York Fire Departments in jeopardy. Schumer, who has advocated for these programs dating back to 1999, noted the vital need for these programs.
“Our firefighters are heroes plain and simple but now there is a major problem. The main federal firefighting funding programs, one called AFG and one called SAFER are at risk of being totally eliminated because their funding expires at the end of this fiscal year, which would be Sept. 30. This would devastate Upstate New York fire departments that uniquely depend on this program, ripping away millions away from communities to hire new firefighters, purchase life-saving equipment and much more,” Schumer said during a virtual press conference.
Schumer further detailed how important these programs have been in keeping fire departments adequately staffed and up to date with equipment.
“Since these programs have launched, they have provided nearly $700 million dollars to firefighters across New York, including over $23 million just alone last year. Can you imagine millions that firefighters thought that they could rely on now suddenly is a pile of ash?” Schumer opined.
“Fire departments, especially those in Upstate New York face budget shortfalls, you don’t want to raise taxes and the extremely high costs mean they can’t purchase the modern equipment they need to combat emergencies to keep firefighters safe or to send firefighters to get the latest and greatest training to protect our communities. They need as much financial help as they can get. The job of our firefighters and the service they provide continues to grow,” Schumer explained.
Schumer noted how these crucial funds have helped across the state, including here in the Capital Region.
Last year, the Troy and Saratoga Springs fire departments received nearly $8 million to hire 30 new firefighters. Plus, the Schenectady Fire Department received $417,032 to purchase personal radios for all their firefighters. Additionally, in 2018, the Albany Fire Department received more than $426,000 to purchase a new state-of-the-art mobile fire simulator trailer, allowing AFD and its regional partners to administer its own hands-on emergency training.
Schumer also explained the need for funding given some of the larger-than-life challenges presented to firefighters in recent vintage.
“We all know of course they put out blazes in buildings but these days they’re on the front lines of so many different other incidents, from helping our communities through the height of the pandemic, to major disasters, just like we saw in East Palestine in Ohio and we’ve seen that other parts of New York State as well,” Schumer remarked.
To that end, the funds are especially needed in New York, seeing as how last Dec. Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed a bipartisan two-person crew bill that passed in the state legislature in May (48 to 13 in the state senate and 121 to 28 in the assembly), which would have required most freight trains to be operated by a conductor and an engineer for added safety.
“So, this funding goes directly to Upstate fire departments so they have the tools they need to save lives,” Schumer noted.
On Wednesday, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, introduced the Fire Grants and Safety Act to reauthorize appropriations for the grant programs until 2030. The Fire Grants and Safety Act would reauthorize the U.S. Fire Administration, the Assistance to Firefighters Grants Program, and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant Program through FY2030. The bill also extends the sunset for both SAFER and AFG from 2024 to 2032.
The bill would increase the authorization for the U.S. Fire Administration by about $20 million, while maintaining the authorized funding level for SAFER and AFG at $750 million.
The AFG and SAFER grant programs are both administered by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide competitive funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to purchase essential equipment and help them increase the number of trained, “front-line” firefighters available in their communities.
“When it comes to protecting the firefighters, spare no expense. Local fire departments deserve state-of-the-art equipment and to be able to adequately staff their departments and not worry about the bottom line. Firefighters risk their lives every day, we certainly can’t have them rushing to danger with outdated equipment and not enough manpower,” Schumer explained.
“It’s time to put on our boots, throw some cold water on these cuts and save this critical resource for our Upstate fire departments,” Schumer added.
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