It’s not just cross-border commuters and federal employees who will be hurting if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security shuts down later this week because Congress is at an impasse over funding the agency. The battle over President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration could hurt fire departments across the nation that rely on Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to pay firefighters and upgrade equipment. States may also not get federal help for natural disasters that occur during the shutdown.
Some 1,800 firefighters receive their salaries through so-called "Safer" grants administered by FEMA, and the grants may not be accessible under a shutdown. "Safer" stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. “A lot of communities are starting to become fearful of what’s going to happen with their grants,” said Tim Burn, spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union that represents firefighters.
Homeland Security could soon shutter some of its operations because the agency's annual funding allocation wasn't renewed in December by Republican lawmakers over the Obama administration's executive actions on illegal immigration. The agency, which enforces the nation's immigration laws, among other duties, will run out of funding Saturday if Congress doesn't approve a bill that would give money to DHS through September. House Republicans have said they will only fund Homeland Security if Obama's immigration policies are rolled back. But Democrats said they won't cave in to that demand.
Thomas Raines, president of the IAFF Local 102 and battalion chief of the Saginaw Fire Department in Michigan, said the department may lose 13 firefighters if the upcoming grant period hits a snag due to the shutdown. “While it may just be a game of chicken in Washington, to small communities like ours who rely on funding, it’s anything but that,” Raines said. “It’s serious and it’s tragic that it comes to this.”
Without funding, Raines said two of Saginaw’s four fire stations would have to close. If that happens, portions of the city won’t be fully protected and the response times to fires in those areas could double.
State governments could also be left in the lurch in the face of a natural disaster during the shutdown, according to a FEMA official. “During a lapse in funding, FEMA will acknowledge -- but cannot process -- requests from governors or tribal leaders for presidential declarations of a major disaster or emergency unless the request is determined necessary for the protection of life and property,” the official said in an email. “In the event of a lapse in appropriations, disaster recovery support for states, tribes and communities affected by previous disasters will be significantly impacted -- recovery payments for presidential disaster declarations will cease because FEMA staff that process public assistance payments will be furloughed.”
Safer grants give money directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighters. The funds are used to hire new firefighters, rehire firefighters that had to be laid off, help communities retain firefighters in danger of being laid off or fill firefighter positions that were vacated due to attrition, according to FEMA. About 1,800 firefighters receive their salaries through Safer grants, according to Politico.
In a letter sent to leaders on the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee earlier this month, IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger warned of the dangers of not funding Homeland Security. “The current continuing resolution has created numerous delays and uncertainties for the department, including delaying grant application periods and preventing agencies from beginning new work projects. Firefighters rely upon DHS programs such as the Assistance to Fire Fighters and Safer grants, which help local fire departments meet their baseline readiness needs,” he wrote. “The State Homeland Security Grant Program and the Urban Area Security Initiative provide resources to localities to help prepare for the threat of terrorism, and the Urban Search and Rescue Response System provides lifesaving aid to disaster‐stricken communities. Without full‐year funding, none of these programs can function adequately, and firefighters are left unable to fulfill their mission.”