In a wave of sweeping Federal Emergency Management Agency reform, a bill before the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee threatens to diminish 20 years of fire service efforts to control its destiny and attack the national fire problem through strong federal fire programs.

The Federal Disaster Preparedness and Response Act of 1993 (S. 995), introduced by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), contains within it language that would reorient and beef up the FEMA disaster response preparedness structure but, in doing so, scrap the National Fire Academy in its present form and reduce the power of the U.S. Fire Administrator—potentially diluting an important avenue of federal commitment to the fire service and throwing a roadblock to fire service access to the Washington political structure.

FEMA has been a national embarrassment. Its recent disaster response record has been severely criticized, its history as a political dumping ground is acknowledged, and its paranoid obsession with nuclear-attack preparedness is indefensible. It’s high time for a restructuring of FEMA priorities and response mechanisms. In that respect, the Mikulski hill is headed in the right direction and is an important piece of legislation.

Hut the FEMA overhaul must not come at the expense of federal responsiveness to the fire service and our daily national fire problem. As it stands, the hill would combine the National Fire Academy and the Emergency Management Institute into the “National Academy for Fire and All Hazards Training” to “provide appropriate education for fire prevention and control of all hazards emergency management.” It would provide training for all manner of disaster responders, including the National Guard, medical personnel, emergency managers, etc.; in this plan, the fire service becomes just another entity in the disaster response chain, without a federal facility dedicated exclusively to its special needs.

The Mikulski hill seeks to change the position of USFA administrator from a political appointment to one of career employment. “Depoliticizing” the office might in theory be attractive to those fed up with the political wheeling and dealing in Washington, hut it represents a loss in fire service leverage at the federal level. As a political appointee, the USFA administrator can pursue fire service gains in the political arena with the freedom a career government worker rarely enjoys. For the latter, courage can be a sure way out of a livelihood.

Ever since the Carter Administration dumped the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration into a newly established FEMA, the fire service has struggled for autonomy within the federal system. The fire service is FEMA’s unwanted stepchild. The USFA receives a paltry allowance of five percent of the FEMA pie for all its programs, including operation of the NFA. It doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to understand how the USFA/NFA could be swept along in this FEMA cleanup.

While the fire service is and must be a key player in the integrated federal disaster response network, we can ill afford to forfeit a national vehicle that enhances our response effectiveness to the hundreds and hundreds of “little” disasters that befall America each day, those fires and rescues and medical calls that add up to one gigantic cumulative disaster at year’s end. We need strong, dedicated fire programs just as surely as we need a strong federal disaster preparedness mechanism. We need a strong official in Washington who will run interference for expanded federal fire programs.

The irony is that Senator Mikulski is an ardent fire service supporter. She believes that this bill will help fire departments as first responders to disasters requiring FEMA responses and contends that a “National Academy for Fire and All Hazards Training” would not dissolve specific fire programs. The fire service should not wait to find out if that’s prophesy. Mikulski is, in the words of a staffer, “not wedded to the bill in its current form —it’s open to debate.” The fire service should take up the encouraging offer.

A National Fire Academy administered with an emergency management orientation is not a National Fire Academy. A USFA administrator without clout is not a USFA administrator. Support an amended version of the Mikulski bill that preserves the fire academy as a distinct entity within the federal emergency response system and retains the USFA administrator as a political appointee. To do otherwise is to invite disaster.

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