Firefighter hiring grant changes for 2016

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Jerry Brant

The 2016 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant application is due to open in January. Recently, FEMA released information to assist departments in planning their applications for the upcoming program opening.

These documents revealed several changes to critical sections of the program that may impact departments’ ability to apply for funding and information needed for their application.

SAFER grants provide funds directly to fire departments and national, state, local or tribal organizations representing volunteer firefighters to assist them in increasing the number of firefighters to help communities meet industry minimum standards and attain 24-hour staffing to provide adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards.

To achieve this purpose, SAFER is set up as a competitive/discretionary grant program comprised of two categories.

1. Hiring of firefighters activity grants

These grants provide financial assistance to help fire departments hire new firefighters. The goal is to help departments improve staffing levels to ensure they have adequate personnel to respond and safely perform at incident scenes.

This activity provides three-year grants to assist fire departments by paying the salaries and benefits of the SAFER-funded positions. This is a change from previous SAFER applications that only permitted two years of funding.

2. Recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters activity grants

These grants assist fire departments and national, state, local or tribal organizations with the recruitment and/or retention of volunteer firefighters.

The goal is to create a net increase in the number of trained, certified and competent firefighters capable of safely responding to emergencies likely to occur within the fire department's geographic response area. These grants can have a performance period of up to four years.

For 2016, there is $345 million available for these two activities. Here I will focus only on hiring of firefighters. I will address recruiting and retention activities next month.

Since the 2008 recession, Congress has allowed FEMA to issue waivers for certain provisions of the SAFER program. With the 2016 application, the program is returning to its original intention with waivers available for individual applicants in some cases.

In 2016, SAFER hiring funds can only be used to hire new firefighters. There will no longer be categories for rehiring, retention or attrition.

To determine if a firefighter is new, you will need to provide your staffing level at the time of application, as well as for one and two years prior to the application.

SAFER grant funds may not be used to supplant funds that would otherwise be available from state or local sources, or the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Grant recipients can apply to waive this requirement.

Cost sharing

Departments applying for 2016 SAFER hiring funds will be responsible for a share of program expenses. Successful applicants must provide 25 percent of the cost for the first two years and 65 percent for the third year.

These cannot be federal funds. A waiver is available for this requirement.

Also for 2016, applicants will notice a position cost limit for SAFER funds. The amount of federal funding provided to a recipient for hiring a firefighter in any fiscal year may not exceed these three limits.

  • In the first year of the grant, 75 percent of the usual annual cost of a first-year firefighter in that department at the time the grant application was submitted.
  • In the second year of the grant, 75 percent of the usual annual cost of a first-year firefighter in that department at the time the grant application was submitted.
  • In the third year of the grant, 35 percent of the usual annual cost of a first-year firefighter in that department at the time the grant application was submitted.

A waiver is not available for this requirement.

The term waiver is used several times in the 2016 program. Here’s how they work.

Getting waived

In cases of demonstrated economic hardship, and upon the request of the recipient, FEMA may waive or reduce the cost-sharing requirement, the minimum budget requirement, the restriction on supplanting or all three. Grant recipients may apply for one, two, or all three of the available waivers.

The 2016 SAFER application will ask if you wish to apply for a waiver. Upon receipt of the waiver request in the submitted SAFER application, the applicant will be contacted by the SAFER program office with detailed instructions as to how to submit all required supporting documentation.

Only those applicants who ask for a waiver in the 2016 application will be contacted by FEMA. You cannot ask for a waiver after you have been funded.

If you receive SAFER funding to hire new firefighters, you do not have to retain these positions after the third year of the grant. However, if you are funded under the hiring activity, you may not layoff firefighters or let positions go dormant through attrition or retirement during the period of performance.

You must retain the staffing level you had at the time of funding plus the SAFER funded firefighters. A waiver is available for this requirement.

One final point, in the 2016 application you will be asked to provide your department’s budget for 2003, 2002 and 2001. These are not typos.

When Congress reauthorized SAFER in 2012, the requirement to provide the three previous year’s budgets was not changed. So, it reverted to the original year of the SAFER program, which was 2004.

Please become familiar with these changes if you are considering an application for hiring new firefighters. If you have questions, please contact the FEMA help desk at 866-274-0960 or contact us at FireGrantsHelp.

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