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Member Speeches :: November 18, 2009

Rep. Harry Mitchell's Floor Speech on H.R. 3791

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Mr. Chairman, I rise today in strong support of H.R. 3791, the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act of 2009. 
Firefighters are often the first – and the last – to leave an emergency scene.  Whether it’s putting out a house fire or a wildfire – or responding to a terrorist attack or a car accident – we depend on firefighters every day.
But firefighters also depend on us.  They depend on the public and their elected officials to make sure that they have the resources, the equipment and the training they need to do their job.  Without those tools, we put them and all of us at unnecessary risk.
This legislation reauthorizes two programs that provide critical resources to fire departments across the country.  This bill also makes several key improvements to these programs to assist the cities and towns in Arizona and across the country which are facing major budget shortfalls and cuts in service. 
H.R. 3791 reauthorizes the Assistance to Firefighters Grants program—or AFG—and the Staffing for Adequate Safety and Emergency Response program—or SAFER.
Since the AFG program was established in 2000, this program has provided more than $5 billion directly to fire departments through competitively awarded funds. 
These fire grants have also provided critical support to Arizona’s fire departments.  Between 2005 and 2008, Arizona received 165 AFG grants for a total of approximately $22.5 million.
These grants are made available to local fire departments to purchase response equipment, training, and firetrucks.  The AFG program also supports fire prevention and safety grants, which are used for smoke detectors, fire prevention education, and research to reduce the causes of fire and fire-related injury and death. 
These funds are critical to reduce fire-related injuries and fatalities.  While we have made significant progress in reducing fire-related injuries and fatalities, there are still over 3,000 people who die annually in fires and another 16,000 are injured.
The SAFER program provides competitively awarded funds for the hiring, recruitment, and retention of firefighting personnel. 
Over the past four years, this program has provided nearly $700 million to local fire departments nationally, and Arizona received 26 SAFER grants for a total of approximately $16 million.  This funding is especially critical during these difficult economic times. 
Based on testimony that the Science and Technology Committee heard from fire service representatives this July, H.R. 3791 makes several key improvements to this legislation. 
First of all, this bill will change the matching requirements to enable fire departments with the greatest need to take advantage of the programs. 
The bill sets the matching requirement for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, from 20 percent to 10 percent, with fire departments serving populations under 20,000 paying a 5 percent match.  This greatly benefits rural and less urban areas.
H.R. 3791 also modifies the matching requirements for the SAFER program.  Based on the recommendations of fire service organizations, reflecting the hardships faced by our state and local governments, SAFER will require instead a 20 percent match each year for 3 years. 
Again on the recommendations of fire service organizations, the bill also gives the Administrator the authority to waive the matching requirements for both programs in cases of exceptional economic hardship. 
Such waivers may also be given for the programs’ budget maintenance requirements and SAFER provisions that restrict the funding to hiring only additional firefighters, rather than retaining current firefighters. 
This is a necessary step at a time when fire departments in many areas of the country are confronted with the prospect of laying-off firefighters. 
This bill is the result of consensus among the fire service organizations, including the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Fire Protection Association, the National Volunteer Fire Council, and the Congressional Fire Services Institute.
I would like to take a moment to thank Chairman Gordon, Chairman Wu, and the Science and Technology Committee for their tireless work on this legislation.  In particular I would like to thank Meghan Housewright, Mike Quear, Louis Finkel, and Lori Pepper for their hard work.
I would also like to thank the Majority Leader, Mr. Hoyer, and Congressman Pascrell for their leadership on this important issue.
I urge my colleagues to support this legislation that provides vital resources to our nation’s firefighters.  During these tough economic times, this support is critical for our public safety.
I yield back the balance of my time.

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