Fire departments are using Homeland Security grants to buy gym equipment, sponsor puppet and clown shows, and turn first responders into fitness trainers.
The spending choices are allowable under the guidelines of the Assistance to Firefighters grant administered by the Homeland Security Department, which has awarded nearly 250 grants since February totaling more than $25 million out of the current spending pot of $545 million.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff vowed to redirect grant spending based on risk of a terrorist attack, but Congress has ignored his pleas, federal officials say.
"The administration has not supported the funding for physical fitness equipment as part of the fire grant program," says Marc Short, Homeland Security spokesman. "Physical fitness is an individual responsibility."
The Bush administration has specifically asked Congress not to allow funding for physical fitness, but the members who run Congress' appropriation committees keep inserting the language into the department's budget, officials say.
The House last year passed the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act by a 409 to 10 vote to require several first responder grants be based on risk, however the firefighter grant was excluded from the legislation.
In Florida, the Plantation City Council recently voted to use its $28,000 grant for treadmills, stationary bikes and training machines for police and firefighters. The Crawfordsville Fire Department in Indiana is using its $55,000 to buy gym equipment, provide nutritional counseling and instruct firefighters on how to become fitness trainers.
Congress also requires 5 percent of the grant be spent on fire prevention funding, says Brian Cowan, director of the fire grants program.
Mr. Cowan says 18,000 applications for the current round of funding were reviewed by fire officials including fire chiefs, firefighters and association leaders, then recommendations are given to Homeland officials as to who should receive awards.
The LAFS for Life program which received a $69,000 grant, partners with the Des Moines, Iowa, fire department to teach fire safety through puppet and clown shows. The Onalaska Fire Department in Wisconsin also has an $8,000 grant for clowns and puppet shows, and Grants Pass in Oregon will use a $22,000 grant to buy an educational robot.
Virginia has been awarded the largest amount of funding through seven grants totaling $2,764,551; Washington, D.C., is second with three grants totaling $2,499,873; Massachusetts is third with $2,055,234; Indiana has eight grants totaling $2,040,064; and Maryland has five grants totaling $1,911,574.
The Home Safety Council in Washington won a $1 million grant to study safety education needs and to train officials to teach fire safety during its first "National Fire and Life Safety Education Best Practices Conference" this fall.
Other groups, such as the International Association of Firefighters and its burn foundation, received two grants for $1.5 million. A spokeswoman for the association, an AFL-CIO union, was asked how the grant will be used. She did not return the call.
The Haitian American Cultural and Social Organization, which provides breast cancer screening for low-income Haitian immigrants and illegal aliens, in Rockland County, N.Y., received a $40,000 grant. The money will be used to provide smoke alarms and fire safety information and to report safety problems in rental housing.
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said Congress and Homeland officials are "having trouble prioritizing."
"They've spent billions since September 11, and while we've avoided another terrorist attack, it's clear a lot of this money could have been spent more effectively," Mr. Schatz says.
"Even if fire departments are eligible, I would hope they would tell Congress what their real needs are and say 'please don't send us money for puppet and clown shows,'" Mr. Schatz said. "People in New York and other major cities will not find this funny at all."