Bradford VFD's Mistake Costs County $18,000
by Chip Skambis
STARKE -- One mistake of many on a Bradford County volunteer fire department’s FEMA grant application ended up costing the county $18,000—according to the grant application and other fire department paperwork obtained by TV20 News.
Though the error-ridden application won the the Heilbron Springs volunteer fire department a $359,000 Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) in February 2012, the department wrote FEMA to correct a few of the inaccuracies, including the total number of residents in the station’s coverage area.
All AFGs require city or county commissions to contribute a small percentage of the grant, if awarded, depending on how many people the station covers. The VFD claimed to cover more than 20,000 people.
In doing so, the station doubled the amount the county had to contribute to the grant, increasing from about $18,000 to about $36,000.
“That was a mistake,” said Terry McCarthy, the Heilbron Springs Fire Chief.
FEMA still granted the station the money with the $36,000 required contribution, despite allowing the corrections in May 2012.
The agency did so without any further questions or audits of the application, even though quite a few of the mistakes were in categories FEMA weighs more when deciding who receives a grant, according to the AFG program guide.
McCarthy signed and filed the grant application under penalty of perjury on September 23, 2011. FEMA reviewed the corrections in April 2012 and granted them a little less than a month after.
(County commission meeting minutes show the fire station didn’t ask for permission to file a grant application until two weeks after they’d already submitted it.)
Had the mistakes on the grant application not been corrected, the station might have run afoul of federal law.
"If those facts were false, and they were made with the intention of causing the government to give the money, which apparently it did, then that sounds like fraud," said Joe Little, a professor emeritus at UF's Law School.
Both McCarthy and Brian Johns, the chief of all the county’s volunteer firefighters, deny any wrongdoing.
Upon winning the grant, McCarthy told The Bradford County Telegraph it was a “blessing.” In a Facebook post, he said the station’s “hard work has finally paid off”’—and with good reason, if its grant application is to be believed.
The application (written by city of Macclenny Fire Chief Buddy Dugger) paints an alarming picture of the state of emergency services in the county at the time it was filled out.
Dugger did not return calls for comment.
It states the money allowed the station to replace the only fire truck serving “all of Bradford County along with Three Florida State Prisons with over 3,500 inmates.”
Even more alarming, the application states the truck being replaced—a 1988 Pierce Arrow pumper converted from a Navy foam engine—had broken down entirely a “few years” earlier.
“During the last few years the unit has been out of service from mechanical problems, causing firefighters to respond to structure fires with a wildland rig and tanker, increasing the danger to firefighters and public,” the application states.
That means prior to the grant, the only truck available to respond to a building fire in all of Bradford County, according to the application, was what amounts to a 300-gallon-mobile water tank with a hose attached to it, meant to put out brush fires and nothing else.
(Johns said we misread this segment of the application, saying the truck only broke down periodically. He cites a section on the next page that says, "Several times within the past year we have had to count on our brush truck and tanker for structure response" to back his claim.)
The application indicates that the fire station responded to 48 building fires in 2010 alone.
“It cannot be over stated, (sic) the present engine is the only engine our department owns and there are no funds within the department or County of Bradford for the purchase of a new engine,” the application states.
The VFD had also been providing emergency services—the application states—without any other federal or state grants, receiving 70 percent of its $68,500 annual budget from taxes and the remaining 30 percent from donations.
But VFD paperwork filed with both the state and federal governments shows few of these claims to be true. Sometimes the application even contradicts itself.
Maps of fire station service territories show the station only covers a 57 square mile swath to the Northeast, not “all of Bradford County” as the VFD says on the grant application.
The department even claims to cover a smaller area of 75 square miles earlier in the application, only to contradict that statement on the next page. (Bradford County is 300 square miles.)
The VFD claims that 28,520 people live in its service territory in its application. That’s the entire population of Bradford County, according to census figures.
A different grant application that the department filed with the Florida Forest Service shows the real number of people living in their coverage area is about 9,250.
Those applying for grants, a guide for filling out AFG applications states, are to provide only the number of people living in the “geographical area in proximity to a fire or rescue facility” that the station normally serves, called a “first-due response area.”
The incorrect coverage area and population are two among eight mistakes the station corrected two months after FEMA awarded the grant, according to a grant amendment request.
The station said they listed a 75 square mile first-due response area by mistake, saying it “was simple (sic) a reversal of the two numbers.” They listed the whole population of Bradford County due to a “misinterpreted definition” of first-due response area, the station said.
Other mistakes the station corrected on the amendment request were the number of firefighters working for the station, the percentages of firefighters with certain qualifications and the length of time the station had owned the fire truck they looked to replace.
FEMA fire program specialist Joseph Ross Jr. reviewed the grant amendment request two months after the grant was awarded. The grant office decided to still award it with “all other terms and conditions” remaining unchanged, including the amount the county had to match.
“The Program Office and Grants Management approve the changes,” wrote grant management specialist Jane Early in a letter to the fire station.
Allowing the amendments appears to have contradicted FEMA’s official policy about correcting applications. According to the grant instructions, “Once you have submitted your application, you cannot change it.”
“You will not be allowed to update your application to correct errors discovered after submission or to reflect changes in your organization’s circumstances,” the instructions say.
FEMA spokesman Dan Watson was unable to provide the agency’s rationale for allowing the changes. He said the agency is “looking into the matter.”
Despite the corrections, quite a bit of misinformation remains on the application.
At first, the fire station claims on the application to only have one truck in the grant application—but then claims to have 4 a few pages later. An old ad for the station also shows 4 trucks.
Though the VFD claims on its grant application to have responded to 48 building fires in 2010, response logs from FEMA’s own National Fire Incident Reporting System database show the station only responded to 4 that year.
The department also claimed that mechanical problems had rendered their only truck unusable “during the last few years,” but maintenance invoices for the truck show the fire station took it in for an oil change 4 months prior to submitting the grant application.
Records of correspondence from the fire department also contradict the claim that the department receives none of its revenue from other grants.
Before filling out the FEMA grant application, the department told the county auditor in a fax that the state forest service had awarded it a Volunteer Fire Assistance Grant totaling $15,800.
The forest service had paid out $7,885.47 to the department by the time the FEMA grant application was submitted, according to the fax.
The application is peppered with other careless errors. The department wrote on its application that their fire station is on the “Southwest end of Bradford County” when a map clearly shows it in the Northeast.
Fire departments that applied for an AFG in 2011 had about a one in 10 chance of winning it. Out of 16,491 applications, FEMA only awarded 1,714 grants, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.
Among the fire stations denied grants in 2011 were the Lake Butler and Starke fire departments. Both of those fire chiefs declined to comment.
Trent Kelly contributed to this report.
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