WASHINGTON -- Central Valley fire departments could pump more money under a revised $11 billion grant program approved Wednesday by the House of Representatives.
Dozens of valley agencies large and small already have received funding under the fire grant program that's grown dramatically since 2001. These same departments, and others like them, could gain more aid under the new legislation.
"This is a very worthwhile program," Modesto Fire Chief Jim Miguel said via e-mail Wednesday. "Very few fire departments in California, and I am sure across the country, have been able to hire firefighters, and many have laid them off."
The House bill, approved by a 395-31 vote, would authorize about $2.2 billion annually for the next five years. It includes an amendment by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, that gives grant priority to high-unemployment areas.
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"This will provide a little extra help," Cardoza said, although conservative skeptics raised concerns about awarding grants by something other than pure merit.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency's fire grant program is similar to a COPS grant program that funds local police departments.
The federal program includes two types of funding. Assistance to Firefighter grants pay for equipment, vehicles and training. In the past two years, 320 California agencies received $44.8 million in these kinds of grants. The fire protection district in Murphys, for instance, received $48,380 to purchase safety equipment.
A related grant, dubbed SAFER, funds hiring of firefighters. Last year, 22 California agencies received $8.4 million in these types of grants.
The Mariposa County Fire Department, for instance, received $421,920 for help with recruiting firefighters.
More than 60 percent of California's 823 fire and emergency service departments applied for federal funds last year, a Congressional Research Service study found.
"Congress has worked to become partners with fire departments across the country," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said.
The Senate still must consider its own bill, and the House approval is not the final step. Still, the 214-page bill and committee report largely track a fire department wish list.
The bill would raise the maximum grant amounts and lower matching fund requirements. It also would strike a funding balance between career and volunteer firefighters, who sometimes clash.
The grants could get bigger. Modesto, Fresno and other cities with populations of 100,000 to 500,000 would be eligible for grants of up to $2 million instead of the $1 million under current law.
The cities only would have to match 10 percent of the Assistance to Firefighter grants, instead of the 20 percent under current law. The SAFER grant matching requirements also would be eased.