THE GLASS IS HALF FULL AND HALF EMPTY

It’s being touted by many as a great victory. In October, both the U.S. House and Senate approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal years 2001 and 2002 authorizing, among other important items, a federal direct-grant program for local fire departments based largely on the FIRE Act.

For the first time in U.S. history, federal legislators have recognized, with more than just token crumbs, the need for directly supporting local fire department programs.

Within minutes of authorization, ubiquitous credit takers were blowing their horns. But, as of this writing, a grand celebration seems premature.

The new provisions are a far cry from the measure of relief sought after by the original FIRE Act. More important, no one knows for sure at this point if we’ll actually get the money. There’s one more hurdle for this legislation, and it’s a high one: appropriation.

Appropriation is the close on the deal. It confirms that you’re getting the federal money, and from where. Authorization without appropriation is a raw steak-you can’t eat it.

Still, the authorized $400 million over two years is not an insignificant sum. Considering that Congress for so long has ignored local fire service funding needs, the initial funding authorization itself is a breakthrough.

The fire service had three strikes against it going into this legislative battle: a slim federal legislative history; low fire service visibility on the Hill (no high-powered lobby base); and the constraining Balanced Budget Act of 1997. Considering these factors, the 21/2-year process from introduction of the FIRE Act to authorization of funds represents the legislative fast track-again, a breakthrough in itself.

When Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) introduced the FIRE bill, many folks in the know around Washington privately remarked that his audacious proposal didn’t have a chance-especially with a $5 billion price tag. But there never was quantitative justification for local fire department funding at any level, be it $5 billion or $400 million. We were shooting bullets in the dark, not knowing what we’d hit.

Key Republicans balked. Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA), the most visible and ardent supporter of fire service issues in Congress, was placed in the difficult position of cosponsoring a bill that the Republican leadership did not support-for him, the FIRE Act was a political risk. Either a compromise would be struck or the fire service would get nothing from the 106th Congress. Weldon, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, brokered the compromise that added fire service funding to existing legislation.

Of course, hypothetically, if we were to try to satisfy every U.S. fire department with this legislation at a $750,000 cap (see box), we’d need about $25 billion in fed money per year. But $100 million for 2001 would be $100 million more than we had before. It represents a beginning. We are almost through a door that, in the past, seemed impossible to open. To that end, the seven national fire organizations-most notably, the two principals, the IAFF and IAFC-maintained a unified front for most of the process. To win wars on Capitol Hill, you must speak with one voice and be committed to a strategy of incrementalism.

The big question is, Will we get the money? As of this writing, operatives and representatives are working to resolve the issue before the close of the congressional session. So far, we’ve met dead ends. If it is not resolved this year (and as of this writing it does not seem likely), the funding authorization could be attached to an appropriations bill or emergency supplemental bill in the 107th congressional session next year.

Darkening the prognosis is the fact that Weldon’s bid to amend an emergency supplemental appropriations bill with $80 million in direct-grant fire service funding this year passed the House but not the Senate. We don’t have full buy-in.

Until appropriation, we cannot claim full recognition and validation of the federal government’s role in support of local fire departments. Until then, we cannot claim that Washington finally has recognized fire to be a national issue and American fire departments the full-service army of domestic defenders that they are.

So while we are moving in the right direction, while there are encouraging developments, hold the fanfare.

It is time to gear up in anticipation of this and future victories.

Now, more than ever before-now, with our foot in the door-the fire service must justify future federal investment. Armed with response data and deployment statistics, we must draw Washington a picture that reflects the value of the American fire service, on a national scale. Without that, we will continue to negotiate legislation with rhetoric and emotionalism rather than the facts, and our glass will forever be half empty.

It’s time to begin to raise the glass to all full, and the loudest cheer will be for yourselves.

Key Elements of the Fire Amendment to the Defense Authorization Act

  • Direct grant program to local fire departments administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. $100 million authorized for Fiscal Year 2001; $300 million authorized for Fiscal Year 2002.
  • Uses for the grant funds consistent with the original FIRE Act.
  • Not less than five percent of the funds for fire prevention programs.
  • 30-percent matching fund requirement for jurisdictions serving more than 50,000 residents; 10-percent matching fund requirement for jurisdictions serving less than 50,000 residents.
  • $750,000 cap per department per year.
  • 25-percent federal funds cap for apparatus purchasing.
  • FEMA, in conjunction with the National Fire Protection Association, to conduct a funding adequacy and needs-assessment study.
  • Incorporates $10 million (2001) and $20 million (2002) Volunteer Fire Assistance Program, administered by the Department of Agriculture.
  • $10 million (2001) and $20 million (2002) for burn research.
  • $10 million (2001) to study the relationship between Hepatitis C and emergency responders and provide assistance to local departments in training and testing for, and treating, the disease.
  • Study on radio spectrum sharing between the Department of Defense and public safety agencies.
  • Elevates fire departments to the top of the priority list for access to excess Defense Department equipment.
  • Department of Defense required to meet with and inform the major fire service organizations of defense technologies suitable for application to firefighting.

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