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Committee Approves Bills to Support Firefighters, Advance Research to Mitigate Natural Disasters

Oct 21, 2009
Press Release

(Washington, DC)—Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology held a markup to advance a bill to reauthorize the Fire Grants program, which provides support for local firefighters and communities, and a bill to advance research and development in the area of hazard mitigation, to help protect people and property from the damage caused by earthquakes, windstorms, and other natural disasters.

H.R. 3791, The Fire Grants Reauthorization Act of 2009 passed by voice vote and was reported favorably. 
The Fire Grants Act reauthorizes the Assistance to Firefighter Grant (AFG) program and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program. The AFG program provides funds to local fire departments to purchase equipment, vehicles, and training.  The SAFER program helps fire departments hire firefighting personnel and meet voluntary national consensus standards on safe minimum staffing levels.  Both the AFG and SAFER programs are administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  The bill authorizes $1 billion for the AFG program per fiscal year from FY2010 to FY2014, and an additional $1.194 billion per fiscal year from FY2010 to FY2014 for the SAFER program.
The legislation makes some changes to the program to make it easier for local fire departments to take advantage of AFG and SAFER funding, such as lowering the matching requirements for the AFG program and modifying the time and matching commitments for the SAFER program. 
“Over the past nine years, the Fire Grants programs have provided over $5 billion to purchase firefighting equipment and training and for communities to hire additional firefighters,” said Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). “This federal support is even more important in this tough economy as local officials struggle to provide services in the face of decreasing budgets. This bill is the product of much hard work by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Volunteer Fire Council, the National Fire Protection Association, and the Congressional Fire Services Institute. It represents the consensus of these organizations on how these programs should be improved.” 
“At a time when many cities and towns are facing major budget shortfalls and cuts in services, federal support to fire departments is crucial to public safety,” stated Technology and Innovation Subcommittee Chairman David Wu (D-OR). “By reauthorizing these two programs that provide critical resources to local fire departments, we are renewing our commitment to ensuring that communities across America have the equipment, training, and personnel that they count on during emergencies.”
“Our local firefighters must have the tools and resources they need to save lives,” said Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-AZ), author of the legislation.  “This bill reauthorizes key programs that help support firefighters in Arizona and across the country. While we can never thank our firefighters enough, we can work to ensure that they are equipped and prepared for the challenges they endure on our behalf.” 
The Committee approved an amendment in the Nature of a Substitute from Rep. Mitchell, and other amendments from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Ranking Member Paul Broun (R-GA), and Technology and Innovation Subcommittee Ranking Member Adrian Smith (R-NE).
"My amendment makes technical changes to help clarify and solidify the bill, bringing it one step closer to passage," said Mitchell. "The bill will reauthorize critical programs to support firefighters in Arizona and across the country."
“My amendment will underscore the value of mental wellness services for firefighters,” said Johnson.  “As a former psychiatric nurse, I believe that protecting the mental health of firefighters cannot be over-emphasized.  My amendment will also encourage partnerships with Minority-Serving Institutions for institutional fire safety research grants, providing greater access for more students to these large research grants. It is intended to cultivate a diverse research workforce for fire safety.”
The bill has a broad, bipartisan group of cosponsors and has been endorsed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, theInternational Association of Fire Fighters, andtheNational Volunteer Fire Council.
The Committee also approved H.R. 3820, The Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act of 2009, which reauthorizes the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program and the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program. 
The Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act reauthorizes two important programs that support research, development, and technology transfer activities to mitigate against the potential damage caused by earthquakes and severe windstorms,” said Chairman Gordon, who is also a cosponsor of the legislation. “The impact of natural hazards on communities can be devastating. In the past two years in my district in Middle Tennessee, tornadoes have killed 24 people and injured over 100. Making households, businesses, and communities resistant to these forces of nature can save lives and billions of dollars.”
“Today we are not only addressing the hazard that earthquakes and windstorms present, but also establishing a framework to begin a multi-hazards approach to mitigating natural disasters,” stated bill author and Technology and Innovation Subcommittee Chairman Wu. “By finding commonalities among the research activities for different hazards and identifying ways to coordinate efforts, we can spend our research dollars more effectively and better protect the public’s safety. In addition, this legislation addresses the biggest impediment to lessening damage from natural disasters, which is is encouraging people to actually adopt mitigation measures. Science and engineering research is important, but it is the push to implement better building practices that will save lives and money.” 
The National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, known as NEHRP, has been responsible for the development of seismic codes and standards to enable buildings and other infrastructure to withstand earthquakes. This reauthorization addresses some of the biggest challenges in earthquake mitigation: developing methods to retrofit existing structures, secure infrastructure, and, most importantly, convincing people in earthquake-prone areas to invest in preparedness and mitigation measures.    
The bill aims to enable the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, which was created in 2004, to achieve the same successes as NEHRP. The activities authorized in this bill can lead to improved building practices that will protect life, and contain the ever increasing costs of hurricanes, tornados, and other severe windstorms.     
The Committee approved a manager’s amendment from the Technology and Innovation Subcommittee Chairman Wu and Subcommittee Ranking Member Smith, and an amendment from Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL).
“The manager’s amendment passed today expands NSF’s ability to conduct necessary social science research, helping protect vulnerable segments of the population who could be affected by natural hazards,” said Wu. “The amendment also clarifies that the development of hazard assessment models and tools should be done in cooperation with both federal agencies and state and local governments, involving officials at all levels in order to best protect public safety.”
“Florida, with its 1,200 miles of coastline, has been the most vulnerable state in the country in regards to high intensity windstorms, hurricanes, or tropical storm activity, nearly doubles any other state in the total number of hurricanes and major storms on record since 1851,” said Grayson. “My amendment is an important step forward in protecting coastal populations and properties through the development of more accurate and efficient windstorm modeling and forecasting tools.”
This bill has been endorsed by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Committee’s most recent hearing on the issue was on June 11, 2009.
For more information on Fire Grants or hazard mitigation, please see the Committee’s website.
111th Congress