When nine firefighters were recently laid off in Portland due to budget cuts, members of the local union dug into their own pockets to support their colleagues. In York, the volunteer fire department is holding a fundraising drive to replace an aging fire engine. And in Raymond, knowing that their breathing apparatus was outdated didn’t stop firefighters from responding to fires.

These stories are incredible examples of why we hold first responders in such high regard.

But they also highlight a serious problem. Too many fire departments are struggling to find the resources they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. Too many fire departments lack the critical equipment that will better protect the lives of the men and women who respond to emergencies. For all that they are doing for us, we need to be doing more to support them.

In November, I spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives in support of the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act of 2009, a bill that will provide funding for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program. In response to a nationwide lack of resources, these grants provide billions for local fire departments to purchase equipment and vehicles as well as hire and train staff.

Some surprising statistics show how much our local departments need these funds. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that 65 percent of fire departments in the United States do not have enough portable radios to equip all firefighters; 60 percent do not have enough breathing apparatus; and 36 percent of all fire departments delivering emergency medical services have not provided formal training in those duties to all personnel.

Dependent on volunteers and hit hard by the recent economic downturn, small towns like those in Maine especially are making due with fewer resources. At the same time, they are being called to do more than ever before – not only put out fires, but also answer the call for hazmat emergencies and homeland security. They are being stretched to the breaking point.

But AFG and SAFER grants can make a big difference in bridging the gap between the needs of Maine towns and their ever-tightening budgets.

In the last year, 50 town departments across Maine received $6 million in fire grants. Each dollar has gone toward saving lives and jobs.

On the floor of the House, I told my colleagues how these grants provide critical equipment to departments throughout Maine. In Raymond, for example, a $150,000 grant replaced outdated breathing apparatus for its volunteer department. Saco used funds to install an exhaust system in the fire station so personnel wouldn’t have to breathe in diesel fumes. Brunswick, facing the challenges of a naval base closure, was able to hire critically needed firefighters thanks to a SAFER grant.

While managing the debate on this bill on the floor of the House, I also told my colleagues about the town of Berwick, where funds have allowed the department to hire enough staff to start an EMS program, decreasing emergency response times. And in Hermon, smoke detectors paid for by a SAFER grant helped save a family of six.

We depend on these people too much to have them respond to emergencies without the right equipment or training. The grants this bill would fund are an investment in our own safety and a bold statement of support for the brave men and women who put their lives on the line for our sake.

I’m happy to report that this important legislation has passed the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

U.S. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree represents Maine’s First District and lives on the island of North Haven. To contact her office in Portland, call 207-774-5019 or go to pingree.house.gov.