Although President Trump has reached the final period of his presidential tenure – colloquially called the “lame duck period” – he still has several weeks in which he can make a difference for many Americans, including first responders.
With this in mind, we asked fire and emergency services leaders how the Trump administration and Congress can help first responders before Jan. 20, 2021. Following are eight suggestions they shared.
1. Prioritize COVID-19 PPE and vaccines for first responders
First responders are on the front lines of the pandemic every day. They can’t simply shelter-in-place or avoid contact with patients. Due to their increased exposure to potentially infected patients, first responders should be prioritized for PPE and vaccines. Specifically, it should be mandated that any state that receives PPE or federal funding for PPE for the strategic national stockpile (SNS) must treat fire and EMS in the Tier 1 priority system or else lose the funding or equipment going into the SNS. Further, it should be mandated that firefighters and EMS personnel be categorized as Priority 1A for a future COVID-19 vaccine.
2. Authorize PPE production with Defense Production Act
President Trump declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency in March, but we are still hearing reports of firefighters and EMS personnel not having adequate PPE, especially respiratory protection. The ESO COVID-19 Data Dashboard shows that N-95 reuse has remained at a similar level since April.
COVID-19 – not vehicle collisions, explosions, fires or shootings – is the top killer of firefighters, EMTs/paramedics and cops in 2020. PPE, along with improved social distancing on- and off-duty, is the best way to protect first responders from exposure to COVID-19. Invoking the Defense Production Act to order the immediate production of N-95 respiratory protection masks and other PPE would help ensure every firefighter is adequately protected from COVID-19 exposure on every response.
3. Encourage Congress to push through the HEROES Act
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act (H.R. 6800) is proposed legislation acting as a $3 trillion stimulus package and is intended to supplement the earlier CARES Act stimulus package. The bill was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2020, but stalled in the Senate in July. There has since been contentious debate between Senate Republicans and Democrats over the bill’s future.
The initial legislation included several provisions to assist local fire departments and firefighters, including $500 million each for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs, plus waivers to the SAFER grant program to allow fire departments to retain and re-hire firefighters. Fire Chief Gary Ludwig, then-president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) urged first responders in July to connect with their senators about passing HEROES Act provisions that help the fire and emergency service.
4. Stop the FCC from auctioning off the T-band
Despite the work of first responders and members of Congress calling for the passage of legislation that would protect the T-band spectrum used for public safety radio communications, the FCC is scheduled to auction off the T-band starting in February 2021. This plan has left some first responders in limbo, as the FCC has begun denying customary license renewals for T-band users, and public safety organizations have determined that large cities lack sufficient spectrum in any band to relocate public safety operations. Halting this process means metro fire departments won’t have to spend billions of dollars to move radio and digital communications to another radio spectrum.
5. Increase AFG and SAFER grant program funding
The Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) programs should each be funded at $1 billion. The additional SAFER funding would not be to add firefighter jobs but rather to retain positions in communities that are looking at layoffs due to the economic hit on tax loss due to COVID-19. Also, remove the match requirements from the community and other restrictions that prohibit applying for grants.
Similarly, the additional AFG funding would not only reimburse fire and EMS agencies for purchases during the pandemic, but also allow them to make future purchases with grant funding to prevent the spread of the virus and keep firefighters safe. Plus, allow volunteer fire departments that have not been able to fundraise due to COVID-19 to recoup their losses through AFG to sustain their operations.
6. Update PSOB program
The U.S. Department of Justice Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program provides death, disability and education benefits to survivors of fallen firefighters catastrophically injured in the line of duty.
Under the current PSOB Act, conditions caused by infectious diseases, viruses and bacteria may be found to be an injury sustained in the line of duty. So, if a public safety officer contracts COVID-19 in the line of duty, resulting in their death or permanent and total disability, then that officer would be eligible for PSOB benefits. However, there are some restrictions, including the fact that a first responder would not be entitled to the benefit if they can perform some type of work, even if not in public safety. It is essential to ease restrictions related to disability benefits within the PSOB program.
7. Increase funding on wildfire prevention programs
The United States was ravaged by some of the most devastating wildfires in the country’s history in 2020, underscoring the need to focus on wildfire prevention programs. It is important to increase funding to prevent wildland fire through better land management programs and to improve community resiliency through the Ready, Set, Go! program and other preventive programs.
8. Prioritize residential sprinklers
Residential sprinklers are essential to life safety, yet some developers push back on sprinkler mandates. The Administration should instruct agencies, such as Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which provide 48% of all new mortgages, to limit mortgage funding to homes without residential sprinklers.
Editor’s note: What are your requests for the fire service during the final weeks of the Trump presidency? Share in the comments or send an email to email@example.com.
[Read Greg Friese’s “lame-duck period” suggestions for EMS]