Former NYC Fire Commissioner Von Essen Testifies before Senate Appropriations Committee on Behalf of IAFC

Washington, D.C.–Former New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen testified before a U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee in April on behalf of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Terrorism Committee.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), had requested testimony as part of its focus on homeland defense planning and in preparation for appropriating funds requested for first responders by President George W. Bush in his proposed Fiscal Year 2003 budget. In addition to Von Essen, the nation’s mayors and governors; representatives of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Volunteer Fire Council, police organizations, and the National Guard; and public health officials also appeared before the committee. Among the subjects covered during the hearings were bioterrorism, first responders, seaport security, and water and nuclear security.

Following are some highlights from Von Essen’s testimony:

· FIRE Act grant program. At all terrorism incidents, firefighters and other responders are on-scene within minutes. They do what they have always done–act to protect the public they serve.

Though New York City had tremendous support from state and federal agencies on 9/11, the brunt of the work fell on (and always will fall on) local personnel because “in a crisis, time is our enemy.” There can be no substitute for a well-prepared fire department in a crisis.

The fire service is pleased with the administration’s commitment to the support of firefighters, police officers, and other first responders as demonstrated in the $3.5 billion FY 2003 budget request. However, it was confused and disappointed when the administration initially proposed eliminating in FY 2003 grants provided under FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters program (FIRE Act grants), especially since Congress has funded the program at authorized levels for two consecutive years and the program has been viewed as “an unqualified success by America’s fire departments.” The fire service does not believe the program “should be eliminated or folded into any new, untested program.”

The FIRE Act grant program was designed to assist fire departments with training and equipment basic to firefighting and the all- hazard responsibilities of local fire departments. “Enhancing the ability of firefighters to cope with a terrorist incident involving weapons of mass destruction can only begin after basic competency and capability has been achieved.”

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh have told the fire service they believe the FIRE Act grant program should continue and remain separate and apart from the proposed new terrorism preparedness block grant program. The fire service agrees and hopes that you and Congress do, too.”

· Fire Department Understaffing. “Whether a department is career, volunteer, or combination, staffing is an immediate issue, especially in light of today’s reality,” Von Essen noted. He pointed out that existing federal programs provide tools for equipment and training but that no program provides for additional human resources for adequate response to terrorism. The IAFC has requested that Congress increase the number of firefighters in the United States by 75,000.”
Adding 75,000 U.S. firefighters will raise fire department staffing levels to four firefighters per fire company. Since proper safety practice, codified in federal administrative law by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, requires firefighters to operate in teams of at least two, Von Essen explained, staffing an apparatus with four would provide two working teams–doubling the present capacity of three-person units used by most fire departments.

“Limited apparatus staffing reduces a fire department’s ability to respond to major events, including a terrorist incident, where large amounts of resources are needed quickly and in quantity,” Von Essen stressed. Early intervention will increase the number of lives saved, he added. “Fire departments respond within three to five minutes and remain in place until an incident is resolved. No other consequence management resource can respond this quickly,” he continued.

Von Essen referred to the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Act, proposed by Senators Christopher Dodd and John Warner. The legislation would provide local communities with financial assistance to hire additional firefighters. The community would have to contribute 25 percent of the cost of the additional staffing for three years. Von Essen urged the Senate to “carefully consider this innovative approach to the staffing issue.”

· Approach to strategy for terrorism response. The fire service, Von Essen said, has called for “a single, comprehensive, national strategy that addresses several key areas.” He noted that the national preparedness effort should provide measurable preparedness goals, otherwise it will be difficult to measure progress and to define adequate preparedness. The strategy should focus on developing a comprehensive response capability that enhances, where necessary, existing local, state, and federal assets, he explained.

Von Essen proposed that the funding designated for terrorism preparedness “be tied to performance capability objectives that include interagency and interjurisdictional planning” and that “the fire service’s efforts coincide with a national strategy that would facilitate and encourage interagency coordination” and clearly defined performance objectives.

An “Institutionalized approach in all 50 states,” Von Essen said, would leave “plenty of room for experimentation and innovation by state and local officials.” He added that such a plan would also be flexible enough to allow local first responders to focus on those areas in which their level of preparedness is deficient in comparison with the performance objectives. The idea, he said, is to have a plan that provides a “framework that avoids the one-size-fits-all approach that has to an extent been employed in the past.”

Von Essen singled out the following areas as the most important for preparedness and those that should be supported with financial assistance: firefighter personal protective equipment; equipment for detecting and monitoring chemical, biological, and radiological agents; and “appropriate training.” He added to the list communications, particularly interoperability–the ability of responders from all agencies to communicate effectively-which he noted “is vital to command and control for effective incident management.”

Von Essen concluded, “It is my life’s experience that firefighters and other local ‘first responders’ will act alone in the first critical hours of any emergency, no matter how large or small. It is within that timeframe that lives will be saved. I urge you not to forget this simple fact in your deliberations.”

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