What is the proper role of the federal government in public safety? Are Congress and the Department of Homeland Security helping or hurting when they take millions of tax dollars from Americans and then redistribute them as they see fit? Both the latest research and practical experience say no.

From FY 2001 to FY 2009, Congress appropriated over $5.7 billion in funding for “fire grants” through the Assistance for Firefighter Grant (AFG) Program, Fire Prevention and Safety (FP&S) grants, and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) programs. The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis (CDA) collected data from 1999 to 2006 on 10,033 fire departments and using regression analysis estimated the impact of fire grants on fire casualties. Of these fire departments, 5,859 (58.4%) received fire grant awards while 4,174 (41.6%) did not. Heritage fellow David Muhlhausen found, that fire grants including grants that subsidize the salaries of firefighters, had no impact on fire casualties:

  • AFG grants used to purchase firefighting equipment, vehicles, and fitness equipment failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths, or civilian injuries.
  • FP&S grants, which funded fire prevention and safety projects, failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths, or civilian injuries.
  • SAFER grants, which subsidized firefighter salaries, failed to reduce firefighter deaths, firefighter injuries, civilian deaths, or civilian injuries.
  • Without receiving fire grants, comparison fire departments were just as successful at preventing fire casualties as grant-funded fire departments.

There is also a real cost to the increasing role of the federal government in public safety. From 1980 to 1992, FEMA responded to an average of 33 emergency declarations a year. Nineteen of those disasters inflicted more than $1 billion in damage. Half of those disasters were hurricanes, while the rest were storms, floods and an earthquake. During President Bill Clinton’s tenure, FEMA became a politicized entity seen as a vehicle for distributing pork and wedding people to the federal government. During Clinton’s two terms, FEMA was involved in 88 emergencies per yer — almost triple the average of the previous 12 years. President Bush only intensified FEMA’s reach, deploying the agency 760 times in his first six years, an average of more 126 declarations per year. FEMA is now tasked with responding to virtually every drought, freeze, flood and crop failure in the country. In a post-9/11 and post-Katrina world, FEMA should focus on its mission as a catastrophic response agency, not a routine disaster coordinator.

Just ask President Barack Obama’s new FEMA head Craig Fugate, who The Atlantic reports, learned an important lesson as Alachua County’s public-safety director in Florida:

the more the federal government does in routine emergencies, the greater the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster. “It’s like a Chinese finger trap,” he told me last spring, as a hailstorm fittingly raged outside his office. If the feds do more, the public, along with state and local officials, do less. They come to expect ice and water in 24 hours and full reimbursement for sodden carpets. But as part of a federal system, FEMA is designed to defer to state and local officials. If another Katrina hits, and the locals are overwhelmed, a full-strength federal response will inevitably take time. People who need help the most—the elderly, the disabled, and the poor—may not get it fast enough.