Fire grants, DHS shutdown: Is the sky falling?

Jerry Brant

It's that time of year again in Washington D.C. and everyone is anxiously waiting to see what happens. No, we are not talking about the opening of spring training and the National's chances to make it to the World Series this season.

We are talking about the new Congressional session and the intrigue it brings. A good bit of that intrigue surrounds firefighting grants.

The 114th Congress convened in early January with 12 new senators and 52 new representatives. On Jan. 9, the House Appropriations Committee released H.R. 240, the Fiscal Year 2015 Homeland Security Appropriations bill, which provides $39.7 billion for the Department of Homeland Security. This is $400 million more than the previous fiscal year.

What's in the bill
Included in the spending bill is funding for a number of programs of importance for the nation's fire and emergency services. The Assistance to Firefighters Grants and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant programs are funded at $340 million each.

This is the same amount as in FY2014. The White House had initially requested $670 million to be split evenly between the two programs, a decrease of $10 million.

The bill also includes $44 million for the U.S. Fire Administration and $35.18 million for the Urban Search and Rescue System, the same amounts as in FY2014. The White House had requested $41.41 million for USFA and $27.51 million for the Urban Search and Rescue System.

The Department of Homeland Security is currently operating under a continuing resolution until Feb. 27. The 113th Congress adjourned without passing an appropriations bill for the department due to Congressional leaders' opposition to the White House's immigration policies.

The standoff
Last week, the House passed a bill that funds DHS, minus measures aimed at blocking President Obama's executive actions. The Senate, however, voted for the second time in as many days on funding the department, which will run out of money Feb. 27.

This time, the vote tally was 53 to 47, with 60 votes needed to move forward. This legislation funds DHS but also defunds many aspects of President Obama's recent actions on immigration, including a program that allows immigrant children to remain in the country.

It showed that with two and a half weeks to go until the deadline, the parties are no closer to a compromise. Senate Democrats proved they can remain united in favor of a "clean" bill without immigration-related measures. Republicans reiterated they don't want to pass anything without those riders, and will vote on the measure again this week.

For now, there's no end in sight to the gridlock.

Learning from 2013
What a potential shutdown will mean to the fire service in some ways is easy to predict based on the 2013 government shutdown. In other ways, we will try our best to decipher the possibilities. Here are the elements of a DHS shutdown that we are sure of.

DHS comprises at least 16 agencies and offices, including the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Secret Service. To have some idea what will happen to these agencies in the event of a shutdown we can look at October 2013, the last time we experienced a similar situation.

That episode lasted for 16 days and encompassed all government agencies. This time we are only dealing with DHS since all other federal agencies were covered under funding passed by Congress in December 2014.

Under the plan enacted by DHS in 2013, only non-essential employees would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown. Employees who protect lives or property will be required to work, but they will not be paid until the budget issue is resolved.

Check's in the mail, maybe
DHS has about 230,000 employees, of these only about 30,000 would be furloughed. That may sound like good news to some, but administrative personnel dealing with SAFER, AFG and Fire Prevention and Safety grants are considered non-essential and will be furloughed.

That means that the staff who normally monitors progress reports and approves grant draw downs will not be working. Thus no payments will be made to grantees.

How long the shutdown is in place will determine how backlogged these offices become and how quickly they would be able to get funds moving once the shutdown ends. Because of this, your department may want to delay purchases funded by AFG if the shutdown takes place.

What becomes difficult to predict is the fate of the SAFER and FP&S application periods. When FEMA closed in 2013, there were no open application periods. This time that may not be the case.

A moving target
The 2014 SAFER grant application period opened on Feb. 9 and is scheduled to remain open until March 6. What will happen if DHS shuts down on Feb. 28 is unclear.

In the past when natural disasters occurred during an AFG application period, DHS extended the grant closing deadline. Would this happen if the agency was shut down?

This is difficult to predict and I highly suggest that all potential SAFER applicants proceed with their application process as normal. If the DHS shutdown does extend the grant period, you will be ready to submit — if it doesn't extend the application period, you will be able to submit on time.

As far as FP&S, I suggest that you plan for the program to open in March. Again, if it is delayed, you will be ready to apply when it opens.

In 2013 FEMA issued a news release prior to the shutdown that explained the operation of their programs during this period. I expect this to happen again if we reach that point.

One final thought in this time of strange political happenings. If funding for DHS runs out at the end of February, it is unlikely that it would slow the Obama administration. Instead, the federal government would have little difficulty proceeding to implement the president's executive action on immigration as planned.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for processing applications related to the president's amnesty, is fee-based. This means it's not beholden to the hotly contested annual appropriations process, as are other agencies within DHS. If DHS funding does run out, USCIS would hardly miss a beat.

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