San Diego Union Tribune

February 6, 2004

Firefighters uneasy with Bush budget
Cuts in assistance could take millions from San Diego County


WASHINGTON President Bush's new budget would cut by one-third the money that thousands of fire departments rely on to keep their communities safe including at least 10 departments in San Diego County that fought October's wildfires.

The nation's firefighters are outraged by the White House plan, which would take $250 million away from grants that help rural agencies buy firetrucks, protective clothing, breathing apparatus, water tanks and other equipment.

In the past three years, fire agencies in the county received almost $6 million of that money; departments heavily involved in fighting the wildfires used nearly $2 million.

"We're very grateful and lucky to have been selected to receive these funds in past years, but the job is far from finished," said Dave Nissen of the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District. Its units were among the first on the firelines in October.

"Fire agencies still have huge needs for services and equipment so they can do their jobs. This was an avenue that helped address those needs."

The Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program was created in 2000 to help fire departments that lack money and manpower, typically those in rural areas that are more susceptible to wildfires, depend on volunteer firefighters and aren't supported by taxpayers as city departments are.

Metropolitan departments, however, can apply for the grants, and in fact, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department last December received $750,000.

"Once we got into the terrorism thing, it was acutely recognized that if a guy can't put out a fire without the proper radios or protection equipment, we needed to enhance (resources) for these local departments," said one federal fire official in Washington who declined to be quoted by name. "The grant program was designed to do that."

In his first two budget proposals, Bush put no money into the program, though Congress included $750 million for the 2004 fiscal year. Last year, 8,000 fire agencies nationwide received $650.8 million.

Bush's 2005 budget, however, cuts the grant money from $750 million to $500 million.

Chad Kolton of the Office of Management and Budget at the White House said the amount left is "still an extraordinary amount of money."

He said Bush is trying to shift more money to anti-terrorism efforts in the Homeland Security Department, which includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency that administers the fire grants.

"What we are trying to do overall in the 2005 Homeland Security budget ... is to focus resources a bit better on terrorism-preparedness programs," Kolton said.

Several national fire organizations said the cut would mean that either local governments would have to shift funds from other city or county services, or that fire departments would have to do without.

"We ask the president to please explain to the American people why he is leaving them more vulnerable to incidents ranging from the threats of terrorism to standard emergencies," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

"The fact remains that firefighters around the U.S. often lack the training, equipment and staffing to adequately respond to calls to save lives and property," he said.

Mayor Chris Bollwage of Elizabeth, N.J., chairman of the committee that studies fire issues for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said: "There are some cities that are going to have to make a choice between equipment for firefighters and police safety because these grants will not be available."

Some observers said it was ironic that Bush plans to put $760 million into his forests plan to help prevent fires by clearing brush and debris from 20 million acres of federal land but wants to take money from efforts to fight fires.

Many of the fatalities during the wildfires were in or near the Lakeside Fire Protection District, said Andy Parr, a firefighter for the district, which has fewer than 100 on staff and a budget of $9 million.

The district in the past three years has received nearly $91,000 in federal grants, but still needs many improvements, Parr said.

Four of the district's five fire stations "are frankly crumbling," Parr said. "Some of these buildings are 50 years old, and there are cracks on the wall. We don't have a helicopter, (but) we have a need for them."

Nissen's agency protects 720 square miles that include Jamul, Descanso, Dulzura and East Otay Mesa, all areas hard-hit by the wildfires that burned 376,000 acres, destroyed more than 2,400 homes and killed 17 people.

The district received $560,000 in grants over the past two years for breathing equipment and digital radios. When the 2004 grant-review process opens this spring, the district plans to apply for more money to replace fire engines and water tenders.

"I have a water tender a piece of equipment that has a 3,000-gallon tank that shuttles water to fire engines and quite literally, it has a million miles on it," Nissen said. "I don't know why the wheels stay on it.

"I've got engines approaching 20 years of age. Engines are typically replaced at 10 to 12 years. So it's a matter of Band-Aiding them together when something breaks."