Pandemic Has Led To Declining Tax Revenues, Which Increase The Likelihood Of Municipal Furloughs According to Municipalities And Fire Departments Across NY

Schumer Says The Use Of Federal Funds To Maintain And Rehire Firefighters, Similar To What Was Done During “Great Recession”, Will Save Jobs And Help Prepare Fire Departments For Coming Months

Schumer to DHS: Give New York Heroes The Support They Need To Protect, Restore, and Rebuild Their Communities

After unveiling his ‘HEROES Fund’ plan earlier this month, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer continued his tireless support for essential workers by demanding today that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) waive spending restrictions on its upcoming Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant cycle, which would allow municipalities and fire departments to utilize the funds to avoid layoffs and rehire firefighters. Specifically, Schumer called for DHS to lessen the cost-share requirements on the grant, allowing more federal funds to be used to pay firefighters to avoid layoffs, and to allow firehouses to use the funds to rehire firefighters.

Schumer explained that fire departments in particular have been hit hard by the pandemic, and face an uphill battle in the coming months as declining tax revenues during the pandemic increases the likelihood of municipal furloughs. Waiving spending restrictions on the SAFER grant and lessening its cost-share requirements would ease the burden of fire departments by allowing them to rehire firefighters who risk their lives every day to keep their communities safe, said the Senator.

“In settled times, and in times of pandemic, our brave New York firefighters are on the front lines, risking their lives to protect their communities.” said Senator Schumer. “These understaffed, overworked, courageous firefighters deserve all the federal support possible to help them do their jobs. I’ve fought my whole career to bring more federal resources to support our brave firefighters, and I will not rest until New York’s fire departments have the resources they need to make it through this crisis.”

“At times like these we need all the help we can get from the federal government,” said Sam Fresina, President of the New York state Professional Firefighters Association. “FEMA used this waiver during the last recession and it helped preserve firefighter positions here in New York and across the country. Now we need to do that again to protect our firefighters again, because we know without this assistance many departments will struggle to maintain the staffing required to protect our communities.  We thank Senator Schumer for going to bat for us now, as he always does.”

"The SAFER grant literally saved us. The new hires it enabled allowed our understaffed fire department to better protect our residents. But that’s not where we are due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said James DiNapoli, Pelham Fire Department Fire Chief. “At a time when our emergency medical work has never been more needed (in addition to all our “usual” fire-related emergencies), fire departments like us will be struggling just to keep the firefighters we already have. Eliminating the matching funds requirement, and allowing SAFER Grants to be used to keep existing firefighters on duty, will help our small village to weather this storm while keeping the public safe."

Schumer cited a provision included in the FY2009 Supplemental Appropriations Act that waived matching requirements and spending restrictions for SAFER grants during the economic downturn, as precedent for waiving spending requirements in light of the ongoing public health crisis. The Senator also noted a similar provision included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 and emphasized to the Secretary of DHS that granting the waiver is vital to ensuring that fire departments across New York are adequately staffed and prepared to face the coming months.

The SAFER grant program was established by FEMA within DHS to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase the number of trained, “front line” firefighters available in their communities. The goal of SAFER is to enhance the local fire departments' abilities to comply with staffing, response, and operational standards established by the National Fire Protection Association and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Schumer’s call today urges DHS to waive the restrictions of the SAFER grant, allowing fire departments to use SAFER funds to avoid layoffs and to rehire laid-off firefighters.

Schumer has long advocated for New York’s fire departments. He was an original sponsor of the legislation that created the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program back in 1999. Since the grant stream was created in 2000, it has helped municipalities fund firefighter equipment and training, and Upstate fire departments specifically have received millions of dollars for firefighting gear, breathing apparatuses, fire trucks and thermal imaging cameras that can help locate a victim in zero visibility and even find a small electrical fire hidden in a wall.

Senator Schumer’s letter to Acting DHS Secretary Wolfe appears below:

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf:

I write today to urge you to immediately exercise your waiver authority and grant applicants within the forthcoming Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant cycle the latitude to spend SAFER funds to rehire firefighters and lessen the cost-share requirements. It is vital that you grant these waivers to ensure that fire departments are able to remain adequately staffed in the wake of this public health crisis.

Among the many sectors hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak, fire departments across the country have suffered and will continue to face challenges in the coming months. I’ve been hearing from both Mayors and the fire service across my state who are worried that declining tax revenues during the pandemic increase the likelihood of municipal furloughs. Our firefighters, in cities like New Rochelle, have been overwhelmed by the virus with about 70 percent of the fire department under quarantine. As fire departments continue to experience the effects of COVID- 19 and become understaffed it is vital that they receive adequate aid.

Since the enactment of the FIRE Act in the 106th Congress, the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) program has provided federal funding to local fire departments for firefighting equipment, personal protective equipment, and firefighting vehicles as well as training. Notwithstanding the fire grants program, the fire-service community felt that without federal assistance, many departments would be unable to meet national standards for staffing minimums. In response to these concerns, the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant was created and provides hiring grants to increase the number of firefighter along with recruitment and retention grants. In times of crisis like we see today, the limitations of the SAFER grant program have become evident. To alleviate the limitations, a waiver authority was included in the Consolidated Appropriation Act, 2020 (P.L. 116-93) lessening cost-share requirements (15 U.S.C. 2229a (c)(1)(E)) and permitting grantees to use SAFER funds to rehire laid-off firefighters (15 U.S.C. 2229a (a)(1)(B)). Again, it is vital that you grant these waivers to ensure that fire departments are able to remain adequately staffed in the wake of this public health crisis.

It is not unprecedented for a Secretary to exercise this authority. In 2009, with economic downturn in full swing, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-5) included a provision waiving matching requirements for SAFER grants hoping it would enable fire departments to more effectively participate in the program. Subsequently, the FY2009 Supplemental Appropriations Act (P.L. 111-32) included waiver authority, granted by the Obama Administration, permitting the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive certain limitations and restrictions in the SAFER statute.

As the county continues to battle this hardship, New York State remains one of the hardest hit areas. As of April 27, New York State Department of Health reported over 291,996 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New York, with over 156,100 in New York City alone. Tragically, at least 17,303 people have perished in our home state because of this outbreak. These estimates are unfortunately projected to be undercounts of what the true impact COVID-19 has had on our state. As firefighters are on the frontline of this battle, it is crucial that we ensure our fire departments receive the help they need. Congress has granted you the authority to provide these waivers and I urge you to utilize that authority and grant waivers for the upcoming round of SAFER grants.

I appreciate your attention to this important matter and look forward to your response. Please do not hesitate to reach out to my office with my questions.



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