In June 2016, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released highly critical audits of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants administered by the U.S. Fire Administration within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Both audits assess grants funding in fiscal years (FY) 2010 through 2012.
Fire grants subsidize the routine activities of local fire departments and emergency management organizations.
- AFG pays for firefighter equipment.
- SAFER grants subsidize the salaries of career firefighters and pay for recruitment activities for volunteer fire departments.
The OIG did not audit the use of Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) grants that target high-risk populations and are intended to improve the safety of firefighters and the public from fire and related hazards.
Despite the documented mismanagement and ineffectiveness of fire grants, the Senate intends to fund the program at $680 million for FY 2017, while the House of Representatives has set funding at $690 million.
Assistance for Firefighter Grants
Based on a sample of 379 AFG grants, the OIG found that:
- 64 percent (243) of the grantees “did not comply with grant guidance and requirements to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse of grant funds.”
- FEMA “did not sufficiently manage or oversee the Program’s administration of AFG grants and did not effectively control the risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and grant mismanagement.”
- “Ninety-two grant recipients did not maintain and provide documentation to [the OIG],” despite being required “to maintain and retain documentation on file for review by Federal personnel.”
- Another 55 grantees failed to pay their matching contributions as a prerequisite for receiving federal assistance.
Based on FEMA’s grant management records, the OIG was unable to audit 36 AFG grantees because FEMA failed to maintain contact information for these grantees. The OIG concluded that FEMA “did not demonstrate an organizational commitment to detect and prevent fraud, waste, and abuse” and the agency “did not ensure the program dedicated resources specifically to controlling fraud risk.”
Staffing For Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants
The OIG had similar findings for SAFER grants. Based on a sample of 139 SAFER grantees, the OIG found that:
- 63 percent (88) of grantees “did not comply with grant guidance and requirement to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse of grant funds.”
- 66 grantees did not maintain and provide documentation of how they spend the grants to the OIG, despite an explicit requirement to do so.
- Thirty AFG grantees were improperly reimbursed by FEMA for ineligible expenditures.
- FEMA “did not sufficiently manage or oversee the Program’s administration of SAFER grants and did not effectively control the risk of fraud, waste, abuse, and grant mismanagement.”
- FEMA “improperly reimbursed 17 SAFER grantees a total of more than $692,000 for ineligible expenditures.”
Based on FEMA’s inadequate grant management records, the OIG was “unable to contact 22 SAFER grant recipients that spent about $8.8 million in grant funds. We could not determine if they properly spent the grant funds because we could not examine the records.”
Ineffective Fire Grants
The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis (CDA) evaluated the effectiveness of fire grants by matching fire grant award data to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, an incident-based database of fire-related emergencies reported by fire departments.
Using panel data from 1999 to 2006 for over 10,000 fire departments, the CDA report used panel regression analysis to estimate the impact of fire grants on four different measures of fire casualties:
- Firefighter deaths,
- Firefighter injuries,
- Civilian deaths, and
- Civilian injuries.
The dataset contained eight years of data from 1999 to 2006 for 10,033 fire departments. Of these fire departments, 5,859 (58.4 percent) received fire grant awards while 4,174 (41.6 percent) did not.
The panel regression analysis used in the report controls for:
- The level of risk fire departments face each year;
- The percentage of fire department responses to fires, hazardous conditions, service calls, and good intent calls; and
- County-level socioeconomic factors, such as age and race demographics, income per capita, and unemployment rates.
Thus, The Heritage Foundation evaluation compared grant-funded fire departments to non-grant-funded fire departments, after controlling for relevant factors that could influence the impact of the grants on the fire causalities. In addition, the evaluation compared the impact of the grants before and after grant-funded fire departments received federal assistance.
Overall, the CDA report found that fire grants, including grants that subsidize the salaries of firefighters, had no impact on fire casualties.
- AFG grants used to purchase firefighting equipment, vehicles, and fitness equipment failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths, and civilian injuries;
- FP&S grants that funded fire prevention and safety projects failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths, and civilian injuries; and
- SAFER grants that subsidized firefighter salaries failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths, and civilian injuries.
Fire grants appear to be ineffective at reducing fire casualties. Non-grant-funded fire departments were just as successful at preventing fire casualties as grant-funded fire departments.
An Absent Federal Homeland Security Function
The fire grant program lacks a focus on fulfilling a federal homeland security function. Yet Congress continues to fund fire grants that are wasteful and ineffective.
A 2007 report by the National Academy of Public Administration acknowledged:
[B]asic fire incidents are usually well-handled in the U.S. and have been for some time, whereas large-scale, complex incidents are less well addressed and usually require cooperation of organizations and across jurisdictions.
However, the fire grant program “mainly funds local entities and isolated projects not tied to improving regional capabilities.”
By subsidizing firefighter salaries, the SAFER grants supplant rather than supplement state and local responsibilities. In addition, the AFG grants are routinely used to purchase vehicles and equipment used for routine activities, such as pumpers, tankers, self-contained breathing apparatuses, and Personal Alert Safety Systems. While these items are important for providing basic fire services, federal funding for these items merely replaces local responsibilities. Congress should eliminate federal funding for the ineffective and wasteful fire grant program.