FEMA promotes its wireless emergency alert system

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has released a public service announcement about their Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) system which sends free informational text messages to WEA-enabled cell phones within range of an imminent and dangerous local situation, severe weather event, or AMBER emergency.

Many new cell phones can receive these messages but older ones probably can’t. It takes special hardware and software. The CTIA website, in the left sidebar, has links to cell phone providers where you can find more information about the capabilities of individual devices.

I have a Samsung Galaxy Nexus (Android system running on Verizon) that was introduced about 18 months ago and it does not have the capability to receive the WEA alerts. However, Google provides through Google Now, what they call Google Public Alerts, but apparently it only works in areas where local agencies are participating to provide the information. Here is how Google describes the system:
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Sequestration budget cuts update, March 4, 2013

We are getting a little more information about the effects of the sequestration budget cuts within the federal agencies that have wildland fire responsibilities. The cuts went into effect on Friday, March 1, when President Obama signed an Executive Order, but most of the details have not yet trickled down to the agencies. They are still in a planning mode, figuring out exactly how the cuts will be implemented.

Here a few more things we have learned since our last update about effects in the Department of Interior on March 4 (which included a letter from the Secretary of Interior) and a broader look on March 1:

National Park Service

The NPS has not received the actual numbers yet, according to Roberta D’Amico their Branch Chief for Communication and Education in the Division of Fire and Aviation Management, but they expect a five percent reduction in the wildland fire budget. This cut comes at the mid point of the fiscal year, which means they have six months left to reduce the expenditures by five percent for the entire year’s budget.

A primary goal of the NPS during this budget crunch, Ms. D’Amico said, is to avoid furloughing any permanent employees. However they expect to hire fewer seasonal firefighters, and the ones that do get hired will most likely not work as many pay periods as they have in past fire seasons. Large contracts that have not yet started are being suspended at least temporarily, and travel, which had already been reduced substantially is being cut back even more.

Funding for NPS prescribed fire and other fuel management projects will be less than last year.

The NPS expects that they can still maintain fire readiness and provide fire suppression capability at a safe level.

The video below features the Director of the National Park Service, Jon Jarvis, elaborating on the effects of the budget cuts.

Federal Emergency Management Agency

FEMA is also affected by a five percent reduction in funding levels, which will result in a reduction to FEMA’s State and Local grant funding. The FIRE and SAFER grant programs to local fire departments will be cut by a total of $104 million.

Thousands of FEMA fire grants, too little time

Over 300 senior level firefighters spent four days this week holed up in a large meeting room west of Washington, DC. They were helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency review thousands of applications received from fire departments and EMS organizations for the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grants (SAFER).

Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 applications for AFG funding alone were submitted electronically. They were all reviewed and graded by computers using criteria developed by FEMA. Then the ones that made it through the basic screening were all printed and given to the firefighters for peer review. The computerized technical review and the peer review each make up half of the final score.

The 300 firefighters reviewing the AFG grants were organized into groups of six people at each table, and were given packets of six applications at a time. Every application was reviewed by three evaluators who read the 20 to 35 page document and then wrote by hand their analysis, addressing four categories on a 2-page form.  If the scores among the three evaluators varied too much, they had to discuss it, and either change their scores to come closer into alignment, or write a statement on the scoring form saying it was discussed and no changes were made. Every table of firefighters reviewed 36 to 60 applications each day.

The firefighters reviewing the SAFER grants may have had a different procedure.

The SAFER grants may have all been reviewed, but the firefighters handling the AFG grants worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. for four days, Monday through Thursday, and at the end of the day on Thursday there was still a large pile of AFG applications pending.  The FEMA personnel asked for volunteers to work further into Thursday night, and may have even asked some to volunteer Friday morning before they had to get on the shuttle to the airport. It is unlikely that all of the applications got reviewed, and FEMA will have to come up with a plan to finish them, possibly bringing another group of firefighters to Washington.

This year, fiscal 2012, Congress provided $675 million for firefighter assistance, including $337.5 million for AFG and $337.5 million for SAFER. Started in 2001, the fire grant program reached a high in 2009 when it had $985 million to distribute, but the amount appropriated has been declining since then.

FEMA personnel at the grant review meeting estimated that there was enough money available to fund approximately 10 percent of the applications this year, so most departments are going to be disappointed. FEMA hopes to begin rolling out grant notifications to the lucky few in September, if they can get the rest of them reviewed soon.

ESF-4 to move from USFS to USFA?

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Framework designates the U. S. Forest Service as the “coordinator” and the “primary agency” for Emergency Support Function #4, which is Firefighting. When FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security get involved in an emergency, the purpose of ESF #4 is:

…provides Federal support for the detection and suppression of wildland, rural, and urban fires resulting from, or occurring coincidentally with, an incident requiring a coordinated Federal response for assistance.

We are hearing that the new Director of FEMA, William Craig Fugate, and the Department of Homeland Security are pushing for the U. S. Fire Administration to take over as the coordinator and primary agency for ESF #4. If this occurs, and it was discussed last week at a meeting in Emmitsburg, it would be a big change.

More FEMA grants in Minnesota for home sprinklers

Some folks in Minnesota are very skilled at applying for FEMA grants. St. Louis County in Minnesota has received a grant for $1.1 million to help 126 private homeowners and business buy outdoor sprinkler systems to protect their property from wildfires. The program will cover 75 percent of the costs of installing the systems. 

As Wildfire Today reported on November 12, 2008, Cook County in Minnesota has already received $3 million in FEMA grants for sprinkler systems for homes and businesses. As we stated then, grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be used for something other than adding sprinklers to private property.