Firefighters' teamwork helps snag federal grant

Volunteers' efforts gain a windfall of $225,000


October 02, 2003|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Firefighters are trained to work in teams to douse burning buildings and save lives, but a small group from Savage Volunteer Fire Company banded together last spring to accomplish a far less dangerous, yet still arduous feat.

They filled out a federal grant application.

Five volunteers, including the chief and the president of the Savage fire department, prepared, proofread and submitted the online application in about a week as an April 11 deadline loomed.

"We had to work fast and hard," Chief Michael A. Hitt said.

Last month, Hitt and others found it was well worth their efforts. The department was awarded a $225,000 grant from the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to put toward the purchase of a new rescue and water pump engine that will replace a 15-year-old model.

It is the largest award for a fire department in Maryland this year and the first time that Savage - or any Howard County fire department - has received a grant through a 3-year-old federal program created to improve local emergency response services.

"It's a great thing for our organization," said Lt. David Hilliard, a Savage volunteer. "We're very happy and very pleased that we're going to be able to go out and perform the missions that we're called on to do with the new equipment."

The award is from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, which is administered by USFA. In its first year, the program provided $100 million in grants.

But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President Bush and Congress increased its funding, from $350 million last year to $750 million this year. The goals are to help fire departments nationwide upgrade and replace equipment and give additional training to firefighters as part of homeland security efforts.

"The program has been overwhelmingly successful," said Tom Olshansky, a spokesman for USFA. "Fire departments are getting the vehicles and training that they need."

This year, the grant program has awarded nearly $270 million to more than 4,000 fire departments across the nation.

In Maryland, 16 other fire departments have won grants for fire operations and firefighter safety, with the next highest award - $153,033 - going to Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department.

"These brave men and women work three shifts: one at their regular jobs, one with their families, and one at the fire station saving lives," Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a member of the appropriations subcommittee that funds the grant program, said in a statement about Savage's award. Mikulski presented an oversized check to the department Monday.

Overall, Olshansky said, the program receives applications from about 20,000 fire departments each year, and about 15,000 receive funding. He said he was not familiar with Savage's application, but Howard fire officials think that several factors helped it win such a large award in the highly competitive category of vehicle replacement.

Those reasons include the age and condition of the company's old engine, which has more than 170,000 miles; Savage's location between Washington and Baltimore and its proximity to Fort Meade; and its access to major roads and highways, including U.S. 1, Interstate 95 and Route 32, the officials said.

"One of the things I got them to put in the grant was that if there was a major evacuation, traffic was going to come at us from both Baltimore and D.C.," said Savage Volunteer Fire Company President Terry Thompson, who helped assemble the application.

The grant will not cover the full cost of the new vehicle, however. The engine is expected to cost between $380,000 and $400,000, and new equipment and accessories for the engine could tack on $50,000, Hitt said.

Hitt and Thompson said they likely will seek financing to cover the remainder of the new engine's cost, trade in the old engine and increase their fund-raising efforts in the community.

But winning the grant was still an accomplishment for "a little, small-town fire department like Savage," said Thompson's wife, Patty, who is the department's administrative assistant.

"Everyone was just ecstatic. It was like Christmas around here," she said about the mood in the firehouse when they learned of the award. "We had gotten the best gift ever."

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