Athol Fire Chief lobbies for increased federal support

Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera.

Athol Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera. FILE PHOTO BY GREG VINE

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 05-20-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL –Fire Chief Joseph Guarnera was among the western Massachusetts officials who recently visited the nation’s capital to lobby for restoring funding to federal programs that support fire departments.

Those who accompanied Guarnera to Washington, D.C. included fire chiefs Michael Spanknebel of Hadley, Christopher Bartone of West Springfield, Ryan Pease of Ludlow, William Bernat of Palmer, Patrick Egloff of Westfield, John Ingram of Belchertown, Alan Sirois of Agawam, Christopher Norris of Easthampton, and Springfield Fire Commissioner Bernard Calvi.

The omnibus spending bill recently passed by Congress and signed by the president cut $36 million from both the Assistance for Firefighters and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) programs. The original amount requested for each for FY24 had been $370 million.

“Those cuts really affect us. I had the pleasure of meeting with Congressman McGovern, who is the congressman for this area. I brought up Athol many, many times and how we’ve been able to get grants that have enabled us to buy apparatuses,” Guarnera said. “And, I’m trying to get more people through the SAFER grant. I told him how imperative it is to keep the SAFER and AFG for towns like Athol. It’s the only other way, other than increasing taxes, to keep with our equipment and staffing.”

In addition to the AFG and SAFER funding, Guarnera said other proposed cuts include funding for the U.S. Fire Administration Fire Academy, which provides free, high-quality training for firefighters across the nation.

“When I became chief, I started sending members to the national fire academy,” said Guarnera. “It doesn’t cost the town a cent. Their mileage is reimbursed, if they fly, they fly them at the government’s cost. The training is free, the housing is free.”

Programs that establish standards for lithium-ion batteries, that provide funding for emergency care and housing benefits for volunteer fire departments, and which address issues related to public safety officers who contract cancer in the line of duty are also the targets of cuts, according to Guarnera.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said that for a lot of communities – especially rural towns – budgets are tight and hiring new firefighters or buying a new fire engine can sometimes be delayed due to other needs.

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“These federal programs help bridge that gap,” McGovern said. “They not only help our fire departments; they help keep our keep our firefighters and our communities safer.”

McGovern said that because of the risk of being a firefighter, having access to equipment is important, as is being able to make new hires.

“One of the challenges in this current Congress is that Republicans have been insisting on across-the-board budget cuts,” he said. “The omnibus bill that we passed in March, they forced 10% cuts across the board in some of these programs. Ten percent may not sound like a lot, but it is when in fact we should be increasing them due to inflation. Firefighters shouldn’t have to choose between necessities.”

McGovern said that last week the programs were again authorized for inclusion in the next budget proposal to be considered by Congress, although this doesn’t mean they will be funded.

“We’re going to keep trying to echo what Athol’s chief and others have told me and that is we can’t cut these programs,” he said. “In fact, there’s a real need to expand them because the need is so great all across the country.”

The representative said he was unsure when a vote to fund each of the programs at the requested $370 million was likely to come before the House. He added that it may not happen until next year.

“We might just pass a short-term resolution to keep funding at current levels which again, in my opinion, is not sufficient,” McGovern said. “But we won’t know what Republicans are proposing until they release their appropriations bill. We’re fearful there may be even more cuts.”

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.