In early April, the National Association of State Foresters sent a letter to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski recommending an increase in funding to two specific federal programs to ensure wildland firefighters have critical access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 tests.
Recommendation 2: Provide emergency supplemental funding for the State Fire Assistance (SFA) program and Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) program at a level 20% above the current appropriation. Such an increase would allow for the necessary purchase of PPE and COVID-19 tests for state and local volunteer firefighters and would amount to approximately $325,000 per state in SFA funding and approximately $70,000 per state in VFA funding.
Rationale: COVID-19 has increased the need for PPE for state agency and local volunteer firefighters; a need which state agencies and local departments have not budgeted for. Additional PPE is essential to keeping firefighters and the public safe when state and local personnel respond to wildfires. Legislating this recommendation would not take PPE supplies away from the medical field and other first responders; instead, it would ensure funding for the necessary purchase of appropriate PPE for wildfire responders when supplies become available.
Currently some states are requiring mandatory quarantine for out-of-state wildland firefighters. Others are not allowing personnel to leave their state. Having COVID-19 tests available could change states’ policies related to mobilization restrictions and mandatory quarantines.
Last week, Sen. Murkowski wrote a letter to the heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Interior (DOI) requesting a coordinated effort to allocate PPE and COVID-19 tests for federal and state wildland fire crews.
Given the intergovernmental nature of federal wildland fire response, the federal government has a unique responsibility to ensure a sufficient supply chain of PPE and rapid testing for all wildfire crews, in coordination with their state counterparts. Accordingly, I ask that FEMA, HHS, USDA, and DOI make it their shared mission to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 on the front lines and to provide me with a status update on actions being taken to ensure rapid tests are made available to state and federal fire crews as the 2020 fire season ramps up.
On May 18th, Sen. Murkowski was joined by Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Joe Manchin of West Virginia as signatories on a letter to Vice President Mike Pence regarding the need for firefighter PPE and testing.
We request that the Coronavirus Task Force work with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which includes the Forest Service and Department of the Interior, as well as state foresters, tribal organizations, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to ensure that the national and regional inventories of gear are full, and to prioritize development of an appropriate testing method, so that wildland firefighters have the necessary equipment to protect themselves from COVID-19.