FEMA awards nearly $3.62 million in fire department grants to Tennessee, with Rhea County coming out big winner

Chattanooga Fire Department Battalion Chief David Thompson, right, is in command Friday, May 24, 2019, at a possible house fire on Igou Gap Road. The fire event turned educational for the resident as safety instruction was rendered by firefighting authorities and personnel on the scene.

NASHVILLE - The Federal Emergency Management Agency is awarding $549,260 to the Rhea County Volunteer Fire Department for operations and maintenance, one of a total of about $3.62 million in FEMA grants being given to Tennessee fire departments and emergency services in 17 counties.

Rhea County's grant was the single largest in Tennessee during this year's round of the federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program. The AFG program, created by Congress in 2001 and now administered by FEMA, is a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"I'm pretty stunned that we were able to receive a grant of that size," said Rhea County Fire Chief Jacky Reavley, who also serves at the county's emergency management agency.

But Reavley said he is putting it to good use: The grant was written to provide firefighters with up-to-date air packs, the self-contained breathing apparatus worn by firefighters and other emergency workers to provide breathable air in threatening situations.

"There's no other way we could have replaced these air packs on our own," said Reavley, noting the department plans on purchasing 97 to equip fire engines. Firefighters are now using air packs that are 16 years old or older, he said.

The fire department has 180 volunteers, some two dozen fire trucks and other vehicles. It has 13 districts, serves about 31,000 people over a 326-square-mile area with 15 fire stations, and a 16th is under construction.

"Trying to maintain those and keep the updated equipment on a shoestring budget is very hard to do," said Reavley, noting the program has been a major help.

Chattanooga's Fire Department also will see $70,000 under the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program.

Other area recipients include the city of Monteagle, awarded a $94,497 grant and the city of Dechard, which received $48,000. Both were for maintenance and operations.

"This is great news for our firefighters and our communities!" tweeted U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The primary goal of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) is to meet the firefighting and emergency response needs with cash grant awards for local fire departments and unaffiliated emergency services organizations.

It's aimed at helping fire departments and nonaffiliated emergency services organizations meet their funding challenges.

It also supports fire prevention projects and firefighter health and safety research as well as personnel through two other programs. One is the Firefighter Prevention and Safety grant program. The other is the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Firefighters (SAFER) program, which provides grants for hiring, recruiting, and retaining firefighters.

Elsewhere in Tennessee, the Pleasant View Volunteer Fire Department in Cheatham County near Nashville is getting $400,000 through the SAFER program for recruitment and retention of personnel.

Upper East Tennessee's Washington County/Johnson City EMS, meanwhile, is slated for a $364,000 AFG award while the city of Lexington in West Tennessee is slated for $253,438.

Tennessee's Department of Commerce & Insurance is receiving a $333,333.33 fire prevention grant.

Department of Commerce & Insurance spokesman Kevin Walter said the grant will be used to purchase some 25,000 smoke alarms for the agency's "Get Alarmed, Tennessee!" smoke alarm installation program.

For the Rhea County Volunteer Fire Department, this year's grant was its second major award from the federal program. Last year, Rhea County received a $356,000 grant. Money was used to buy 138 new sets of turnout gear for firefighters.

Now in its 19th year, federal fire assistance is distributed to career, volunteer, combination and paid-on-call fire departments serving urban, suburban, and rural areas.

This year's grants came from federal Fiscal Year 2018 funding.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.