On May 15, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 6800, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which would provide approximately US$ 3 trillion in assistance, to help the nation deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill includes a number of provisions to assist fire, EMS, and rescue departments, including:
- Provides US$ 500 million through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program, for the purchase of personal protective equipment and related supplies, mental health evaluations, training, and temporary infectious disease decontamination or sanitizing facilities and
- Provides US$ 500 million for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program, which provides funding to fire departments to hire, recruit, and retain volunteer and career firefighters.
- Waives the local matching requirements for AFG and SAFER funding provided in the HEROES Act, for AFG funding provided in the CARES Act, and for FY 2020 AFG and SAFER funding.
- Eliminates the 25 percent local match required to access disaster assistance from FEMA for pandemic-related expenses.
- Makes permanent the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act (VRIPA), which exempts nominal incentives that volunteer emergency responders receive as a reward for their service from being subject to federal income tax and reporting requirements.
- Repeals a requirement in current statute to reallocate and auction the ‘T-Band’ radio spectrum, which many public safety agencies around the country currently use for communications.
The HEROES Act as introduced waived the following statutory requirements for AFG funding appropriated in FY 2020 and under the HEROES Act:
- That grant applications be subject to peer review evaluation.
- That maximum award sizes be capped based on population protected.
- That volunteer, combination, and career departments each receive a minimum of 25 percent of appropriated funds.
NVFC’s letter to U.S. House of Representatives
HEROES Act provides US$ 180 billion funds for ‘premium pay’ to ‘employees’ performing ‘frontline work’
National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) Chair, Steve Hirsch sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives, the day after the HEROES Act was introduced, objecting to the waivers due to concerns that they would result in a significant reduction of funding to volunteer fire departments. In response to the NVFC’s objections, the U.S House of Representatives agreed to remove the waivers for the FY 2020 AFG funding, but not the funding appropriated as part of the HEROES Act.
The HEROES Act also appropriates US$ 180 billion to provide ‘premium pay’ to ‘employees’ performing ‘frontline work’, during the COVID-19 pandemic. While volunteer fire and EMS personnel perform frontline work, as defined under the bill, they are not eligible to receive premium pay under the bill because they are not employees.
Call for volunteer emergency responders to be included
The NVFC believes that if the federal government is going to pay people, who are not federal employees for working on the frontlines, during the pandemic, then volunteer emergency responders should also be included.
The HEROES Act passed the House on a mostly-party line vote, with 207 Democrats and 1 Republican voting ‘yes’ and 14 Democrats, 184 Republicans, and 1 Independent voting ‘no’. US President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the HEROES Act, and US Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell has indicated that the US Senate does not plan to take it up.
COVID-19 relief legislation
“There are a lot of valuable provisions in the HEROES Act, and I thank the House of Representatives for their work in developing it,” said Hirsch, adding “I am particularly pleased that the bill would make the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act permanent, resulting in approximately US$ 50 million in annual tax savings for volunteer emergency responders according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Hirsch adds, “I thank the appropriators for working with the NVFC to improve the AFG waiver language in the HEROES Act on short notice. The NVFC will continue to work with the House and Senate on additional modifications to the HEROES Act and/or future COVID-19 relief legislation.”