County VFDs await word on federal grant applications

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Personnel with Carter County's volunteer fire departments are awaiting word on their applications for federal grants awarded to municipal and volunteer fire departments across the nation.
   "We're not sure that we're going to get it," said Jack Buckles, assistant chief of the Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department. "It was available last year and we didn't get anything."
   The grants are being administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Firefighters Association (USFA) through the federally funded Assistance to Firefighters Program.
   Grant applications were limited to fund fire prevention, firefighting equipment, personal protective equipment, training, vehicles, and wellness and fitness projects.
   All the county's seven volunteer fire departments -- West Carter, Central, Watauga, Stoney Creek, Hampton/Valley Forge, Roan Mountain and Elk Mills -- applied for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant, said Nichols.
   David Nichols, president of the county's Volunteer Fire Department Association, told the county commission's Budget Committee last week that the Stoney Creek VFD had received a letter from FEMA requesting a way to transmit funds electronically.
   "When the Elizabethton Fire Department got their grants approved, they got the same kind of letter," Nichols told the committee.
   The city of Elizabethton was awarded more than $29,000 to fund personal protective equipment through the program in 2001.
   The departments applied for the grants last year but were not selected to receiving funding.
   FEMA announced last week the third round of grants had been awarded to 389 fire departments totaling more than $28 million in grants. The agency anticipated 5,500 fire departments will receive awards before the end of the calendar year, according to the latest award announcement.
   More than 19,500 fire departments -- volunteer and career -- applied for grants this year, submitting requests totaling almost $2.2 billion.
   "We applied for 31 sets of protective turnout gear, and 26 self-contained breathing apparatus, commonly known as airpacks," said Buckles.
   Kelly Taylor, chief of the Hampton/Valley Forge VFD, said his department had applied for 30 new sets of firefighter turnout gear and 10 airpacks under personal protective gear -- a cost of approximately $50,000.
   "We've been lucky so far. Our fire trucks have been in pretty good condition," he said.
   "We have 30 sets of turnout gear, but five suits are five years old, the rest is seven to 10 years old," he said. "They are a good set of gear and relatively inexpensive, but the life span is probably three to six years max. In time they need to be replaced."
   The county's general fund budget appropriated $252,000 to the volunteer fire departments during the 2001-2002 fiscal year. County volunteer fire departments have requested a $10,000 increase over that amount, according to the 2002-2003 budget summary.
   Congress appropriated $100 million in May 2001 to the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and related agencies to fund the program.
   FEMA reported receiving 31,295 grant applications from 18,915 fire departments totaling $2.99 billion in requests in 2001.
   By September 30, 2001, FEMA/USFA had awarded 1,855 competitive grants to local fire departments for total federal funding of almost $92 million and 31 grants totaling $4.5 million to fire service organizations.
   Including the cost shares required from the departments, this resulted in total spending of $120 million on firefighter and public safety, according to FEMA data.
   The agency has reported awarding 740 grants totaling more than $55 million through fiscal year 2002.
   Fire departments were required to fill out paper applications and mail them to FEMA/USFA by May.
   "We haven't been accepted or rejected as of yet," said Dale Smalling, chief of the Watauga VFD, who said his department had submitted a $160,000 grant application for a fire engine.
   All applications are manually entered into a database and then initially scored based on responses to category-specific questions in the application developed to reflect the priorities of the grant program, according to FEMA's grant parameters.
   Fire departments are expected to be notified of their approval or denial before Dec. 31.
   Taylor estimated that the Hampton VFD responded to around 50 calls each month including structure fires and medical assists, to false 911 calls.
   "We have maybe 12 house fires per year," he said. This is the second year county fire departments have applied to the program.
   "Last year we asked for a fire truck and gear," he added. "With the trucks we have now, we are able to keep them up and we felt it was more important to protect the firefighters."