The Federal Sequestration’s Effect on Fire Departments
As of March 1, FEMA's budget has been cut by 5% because of the sequestration order. (The sequestration is the employment of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts in the face of annual budget deficits.) The greatest cut comes from disaster-relief programs, which is set to lose more than $900 million. The effects this will have on the following years are not completely clear yet, but there are a few things we can expect if a deal is not reached.
Here’s how the federal government programs that affect the fire and emergency service are affected:
- The U.S. Fire Administration will be cut by $2 million.
- DHS State and Local Programs (including the FIRE and SAFER grant programs) will be cut by a total of $117 million.
- The U.S. Forest Service’s wildland-fire management account will be cut by $125 million.
- The U.S. Department of Interior’s wildland-fire management account will be cut by $38 million.
- The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's Hazardous Materials Safety Account will be cut by $2 million and the Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness Grants will be cut by $1 million.
- Medicare will reduce reimbursements to providers by 2% starting on April 1, and there may be a delay in receiving reimbursements.
In addition, the 2013 application periods for these programs may be delayed. That about sums up the bad news. But as the title states, there's got to be good news too, right?! Well it is important to recognize that Assistance to Firefighters, Fire Prevention and Safety, and SAFER grants awarded with fiscal year (FY) 2012 funding or earlier are not affected by these cuts. These cuts only affect FY 2013 funding. So departments that were awarded grant money for this year can still expect to receive it. Congress must pass the FY 2013 appropriations for the federal government by March 27. There may be some changes to the funding levels of federal fire service programs. And if a deal can be reached before the end of this fiscal year, the sequestration goes away.
What To Do Next
The other good news is there are things you can do to stay prepared and lessen the load that may come later. As you begin to formulate your plan to respond to the sequestration’s potential impact on your department, keep the following points in mind:
- Know the facts. Understand the current facts and constantly reassess the situation as it develops. Make sure to talk with your federal partners to understand how these cuts will directly affect you. Every federal agency is handling sequestration differently, resulting in confusing media reports. The IAFC will keep you posted on developments in Washington, but rumors, news reports and speculation will likely be constant. Make sure the facts are confirmed before commenting or acting on such reports.
- Collect your data. Data will help you understand what resources are available to respond to this situation. Assess your budget: how much of it is dependent on federal or state funds? What likely impacts will the sequestration have in your community? How will that affect your department?
- Develop a plan of attack. Attack the problem, not people. Joining the chorus of yelling and finger-pointing won't help your department or community. Talk to your community--the public, elected officials and union counterparts--as soon as possible. Remember to speak directly and professionally in all of your discussions and statements. Make sure to point out specific problems and offer solutions and data, not threats or scare tactics.
- Align the troops and give clear direction. Like any incident commander, you need to ensure your personnel are well informed and given clear direction. Make sure everyone in your department understands the facts and are empowered to provide leadership to the community. Don't censor your troops, but review the SOPs or professional expectations surrounding social media and public comment. Consider developing an internal mechanism to allow venting of frustration, collection of ideas and feedback and rumor-busting. Engage local allies early. Work together to develop solutions to financial challenges.
The key to success in a shortened grant cycle with less funds being available is to begin writing your applications ahead of time and not waiting for the actual grant announcement. That way when Washington makes the decision(s), they will be that much more ahead of other agencies.