Most people in the room understood that they were witness to fire service history in the making. Never before had Congress reached out to the fire service in such a way, and on the fire service`s “home court”–in this case, the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA), chairman of the U.S. House National Security Committee, and Congressman Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), a member of that committee, came to town on March 21 to conduct a full-fledged congressional field hearing. They had one intent: to hear from the fire service itself how the federal government could better serve the needs of the first responder in domestic terrorist incidents.

Over three hours, they received testimony from six federal representatives involved in training and assistance programs for first responders (Department of Defense, U.S. Army Chemical-Biological Defense Command, U.S. Army/National Guard, National Fire Academy, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and seven municipal fire chiefs involved at various levels with the federal response effort. The testimony will be presented to the full House Security Committee for consideration in the National Defense Authorization Act. [Chiefs on the panel included Chief Richard Marinucci, Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department/president, International Association of Fire Chiefs; Deputy Chief John Eversole, Chicago Fire Department; Chief Mario Trevino, Las Vegas Fire Department; Commissioner Harold Hairston, Philadelphia Fire Department; Chief Larry Curl, Wayne Township (IN) Fire Department/National Volunteer Fire Council/IAFC Volunteer Section; Deputy Chief Theodore Jarboe, Rockville, MD; and Chief Keith Smith, Indianapolis Fire Department.]

Fire service cynics will find comfort knowing that this event was a genuine fire service opportunity offered by two individuals with a genuine, abiding interest in the fire service. Weldon, a former chief who`s been on the line in large and small disasters, and Reyes, who has 16 family members in the fire service in both career and volunteer capacities, did not disappoint.

“The fire service has a unique capability in dealing with incidents of this type–I would say perhaps in some cases more than our federal agencies,” said Weldon. “Every day in this country fire and EMS leaders respond to [incidents] dealing with all kinds of toxic materials that you have no idea what you`re facing. We need to make sure that those men and women who have been handling these incidents for 200 years are allowed to be given the proper role in designing the response, training, and resources to deal with this newest threat, the threat of terrorism. That`s really what this hearing`s all about.”

Weldon and Reyes challenged the panel of federal witnesses. Said Weldon, “[Regarding] a nationwide network of training centers, the question is why the fire service was not consulted. I think the last thing the fire service wants is one person, one senator, deciding where the best training for the fire and EMS community should be held. That should be done by the people who are out there using this training.”

“To what degree has there been consultation with the on-the-ground first responders?” asked Reyes. “[They] ought to be driving this vehicle and venting their requirements and their experience and expertise up through the system. Based on the [recent anthrax] scare [in Las Vegas in February], wouldn`t it stand to reason that we would have called and consulted with [Las Vegas Fire Department] Chief Trevino about what they ran into, what problems they had?”

Some fire service members in the audience remarked that a few on the federal witness panel preferred to skirt certain issues in response to direct congressional questioning. Yet, all federal representatives expressed their intention to continue to work cooperatively with the fire service. Some stressed the point that the terrorism programs are a just-off-the-ground first step, though Dr. Denis Onieal, superintendent of the National Fire Academy, remarked that the NFA had taken action on educating the fire service on terrorist incident response prior to the start-up of other federal programs.

And the fire service made its points. The panel resounded with the importance of fire service inclusion in all steps of the process; the need to focus on the first responder who will arrive “six minutes, not six hours” into the incident; the need to expand terrorism training beyond the currently slated 120 cities and include suburban and rural volunteer departments in that training; the need for interagency hands-on training; the need for increased funding for NFA terrorism training programs; the need for the federal government agencies to work as a component and maintain the integrity of the incident command system as taught by the NFA; the need for equipment/supplies and financial resources to be passed down directly from the federal to the local level; and other issues.

But questions remain: Will the Federal Communications Commission designate radio channels specifically for interoperability at these incidents? Is training the fire service through the military and its consultants the best approach? How will we get the word out to 30,000 mayors that a Department of Defense response can be mobilized on a simple mayoral request? and many others.

Fire Engineering will present the testimony from this historic hearing next month. Until that time, be aware of two key issues brought up in the proceedings:

First, as stressed by Mr. Weldon, “Let us reemphasize again: $21.2 million was appropriated last year [1998 Appropriations Act for the Department of Justice counterterrorism fund] that has not been spent for resources specifically for state and local fire service agencies. You need to get on the horn with your representatives and your senators and say you want that money to be used to help you prepare for these kinds of disasters. This is not new money; it`s already there. And what we`re hearing today is that the plan is not complete, so you have a chance. Now is the chance for the fire service organizations in this country to say how they want the money spent and to say it loudly and clearly.”

Second, I offer this bit of very telling testimony:

Weldon, to seven fire service witnesses: “I`ve heard a lot about cooperation [from the federal agencies], but there`s one agency I haven`t heard mentioned at all. Let me say one of things the fire service suffers from in Washington is it doesn`t have what the law enforcement community has. Law enforcement has the FBI and DEA constantly fighting for its priorities. The military has the Pentagon constantly fighting for its priorities. How come no one has mentioned the [U.S.] Fire Administration? My own perception is the Fire Administration is not aggressive enough in acting as an advocate for the fire service of this country. Would you all like to respond?”

Chief Jarboe: “Congressman, I`m very supportive of the National Fire Academy.”

Weldon: “Let`s separate out the Fire Academy. I`m talking about the Fire Administration.”

(Slight pause) Voice from the panel: “I`ll skip it now.”

Second voice from the panel: “Yeah.”

Weldon: “You`ll skip it now. Does anyone have any comment?”

Chief Smith: “My only comment, Mr. Chairman, is I never recognized that as their role.”

Weldon: “Should it be the role of the Fire Administration? Should it be more of an advocate for the fire service?”

Smith: “Well, because we need somebody to carry the banner, I would say yes.”

Weldon: “Chief Curl, what do you think?”

Chief Curl: “We certainly need someone, and that`s an appropriate place to start.”

(No other comments are offered by the fire service.)

Fortunately for the fire service, no other golden opportunities were missed. This second point will be tackled in another editorial. In the meantime, we rise in gratitude to Mr. Weldon and Mr. Reyes for their friendship, for their attention to the right cause, and for bringing Washington to the fire service.

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