IAFC President Buckman Testifies Before Senate Committee

John M. Buckman, III, chief of the German Township Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, Indiana, and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee on VA/HUD and Independent Agencies of the Committee on Appropriations on February 5 concerning “Requirements for the Fire and Emergency Service.” Following is a summary of his remarks.

The IAFC represents the leaders of America’s fire and emergency service, which consists of over 31,000 fire departments in the United States staffed by more than 1.1 million firefighters and emergency medical services personnel. Of those, more than 800,000 are volunteers, and about 250,000 are career personnel.

Thank you for this opportunity to advise you about the pressing needs of America’s fire and emergency service and the status of the Assistance to Firefighters grant program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program

In the autumn of 2000, Congress authorized and funded the Assistance to Firefighters grant program. Its purpose is to assist local departments in securing the fundamental tools of firefighting. In its first year, nearly 20,000 fire departments sought support from the federal government to improve fire prevention programs; upgrade training; purchase personal protective gear, apparatus, and equipment; and enhance fitness and wellness programs to better enable personnel to mitigate the all-hazards incidents to which we respond. Grant requests totaling nearly $3 billion were received by FEMA for the $100 million available in fiscal year 2001.

FEMA established an office to administer the program and criteria for the selection of recipients. Working to achieve the goals and priorities established by Congress, FEMA consulted with major fire service organizations and developed the specifics of the first Assistance to Firefighters grant program quickly and efficiently.

The events of September 11 demonstrated, once and for all, the critical role of the fire service in responding to national disasters. As a result, Congress enacted several significant enhancements to the grant program for future years. Most significantly, funding for the program was increased to $360 million for fiscal year 2002, and the program was reauthorized for an additional two years at a funding level of $900 million-triple the original amount. In addition, new grant categories were added, including grants for equipment related to the response to terrorism incidents. These changes will pay extraordinary dividends to local fire departments and the citizens they protect around the country, and we thank you and Congress for enacting them.

As this record indicates, in a very short time the grant program has developed an impressive record of funneling desperately needed federal resources directly to those who are on the front line of homeland security, America’s fire service. Based on that record, we encourage you and Congress to utilize the Assistance to Firefighters grant program for any funds appropriated for the purpose of assisting the fire service’s mission of domestic defense.

In his State of the Union address one week ago today, President Bush made a commitment to a sustained strategy for increased homeland security. The president has made clear that he considers a critical component of this strategy to be increased federal funding for America’s fire and emergency service. In order to ensure that the full benefits of this increased funding are realized by the American people, we urge you and Congress to utilize the Assistance to Firefighters grant program for that portion of funding meant for the fire and emergency service. We do not think there is a need to establish any new programs for terrorism preparedness. The mechanisms to get necessary resources to local responders are in place. Let’s use them. By using this existing program, Congress can ensure that appropriated funds quickly reach America’s fire service–the only people in the United States who are situated locally and trained, equipped, and sworn to respond within minutes to all incidents, natural or man-made, which threaten the American homeland.

Additional Firefighter Staffing

The understaffing of fire departments is an issue that must be addressed. Whether a department is career, combination, or volunteer, the level of staffing is an immediate issue, especially in the light of today’s reality.

Working with our counterparts at the International Association of Fire Fighters we have strongly endorsed bipartisan legislation-the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) bill-introduced by Senators Christopher Dodd and John Warner that would provide federal assistance to local fire departments for the purpose of hiring new firefighters. Local governments would be required to pay an increasing share of the costs associated with the new firefighters over a three-year period until the local government assumed all responsibility for funding the new positions.

The primary objective of adding 75,000 additional firefighters is raising the staffing level of fire departments throughout the country to four firefighters per unit. A four-person response unit will yield a 100 percent increase in operational capacity compared with three-person companies. Under federal administrative law and proper safety practices, firefighters must operate in teams of at least two people. Therefore, fire apparatus staffing of four will yield two working teams of two, doubling the capacity of apparatus staffed with three personnel which can form only one operational team. Raising staffing levels to four personnel is a large undertaking, but it is necessary.

Another aspect of this problem is the increasing difficulty in recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters. As a volunteer fire chief, I personally know how difficult this is. The reasons for this problem are varied, and the solutions complex. We will continue to work with Congress on these issues. However, I would like to take a moment to applaud the National Fire Academy for its effective support of the volunteer fire service. Its curriculum reflects the diverse needs of the volunteer fire service, and its generous financial aid enables many volunteer firefighters to attend its classes. The National Fire Academy is a critical supporter of the volunteer fire service, and for that we are grateful.

Office of National Preparedness

In 1997, the Departments of Defense and Justice began training and equipping local firefighters and police to deal with incidents of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction. Similar programs have since been authorized by Congress, bringing the Department of Health and Human Services, FEMA, and other federal agencies into the effort. Without doubt we have made progress, but preparedness efforts need to be more clearly focused.

In May of last year, President Bush proposed an Office of National Preparedness (ONP) at FEMA. The ONP was to serve as a single point-of-contact for state and local public safety agencies, charged with reviewing all federal training and response programs spread across myriad federal agencies.

We have strongly endorsed the creation of the Office of National Preparedness in prior testimony before Congress, and we reiterate that endorsement today. It has the support of America’s first responders and represents a crucial step in the right direction. We are pleased that this Committee approved and funded the Office of National Preparedness. It is a logical extension of FEMA’s responsibilities for disaster response, and it is consistent with President Bush’s public announcement in May of last year concerning the organization and management of federal terrorism response programs and his creation of the Office of Homeland Security.

USAR Expansion

In the days immediately following the attacks on September 11, 2001, many Americans heard for the first time about FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) teams. There are 28 teams, largely composed of local firefighters with specialized training and equipment and extensive experience that can be deployed to major incidents throughout the country.

In the metropolitan Washington area, for example, there are USAR teams in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland. In the event of a major structural collapse-such as occurred in New York City, or a few years ago in the San Francisco earthquake-these teams or any of the other 26 can be “activated” by FEMA. They travel to the scene of disasters to perform crucial rescue operations.

By any measure, the effectiveness of the USAR teams, in response to a wide variety of disasters, has been impressive. Building upon this proven track record, the IAFC has put forth several suggestions to enhance the effectiveness of the USAR teams.

First, we are pleased to note that FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh has already proposed action on one of our initial recommendations-authority for credentialing, training, and deploying Urban Search and Rescue teams will move to the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). This organizational change will ensure that FEMA staff, with significant operational fire experience, is in charge of this critical component of the federal response to any major disaster.

We also encourage the following additional changes to the USAR program. The IAFC believes the USAR program should be expanded and upgraded by the formation of smaller, more mobile “USAR Lite” teams. The federal government should assist the fire and emergency service in expanding a proven concept by creating additional smaller units in each state, which would include staffing levels and equipment caches with sufficient personnel and equipment to effectively function for 4 to 24 hours. These teams will be designed to be smaller, quicker to deploy, and be closer in proximity to the emergency, and would therefore have easier and more rapid access to emergency scenes. Short response time is a critical consideration when the lives of people buried beneath rubble are at stake. This immediate response would be followed by the deployment of the more traditional USAR teams, which would be activated and deployed in their usual manner.

We also believe there is a need for what we call “Command Overhead Teams.” It is often the case in prolonged, major incidents that a fire department’s commanders are fully engaged in addressing the instant issues and are hard-pressed to anticipate what might develop and to then plan for the future. They would welcome outside assistance. The “Command Overhead Teams” concept involves the creation of small groups of three to five experienced command officers who can be called upon on short notice to provide assistance to local efforts in an emergency at the request of a local incident commander.

The USAR program has a well-deserved reputation for excellence. Based on this record, we strongly encourage FEMA to implement these recommendations in order to further enhance the operational capabilities of this critical national resource.

Federal Leadership

The U.S. Fire Administration is a directorate within FEMA. Its mission is to provide leadership, coordination, and support for the nation’s fire prevention and control, fire training and education, and emergency medical services activities. The U.S. Fire Administration’s ultimate objective is to significantly reduce the nation’s loss of life from fire, while also achieving a reduction in property loss and non-fatal injury due to fire.

Historically, leadership at the U.S. Fire Administration has been unstable. As the fire service moves forward with changes that it will make as a result of the September 11 tragedy, those changes will place an even greater leadership burden on USFA. That is why the federal government must move forward now to ensure that constancy and depth of leadership is in place throughout the organization to prepare the U.S. Fire Administration for the challenges that lie ahead and to meet the needs of the nation.

Fortunately, FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh understands this need and has taken decisive action to provide leadership at the USFA and provide it with the resources and oversight to effectively carry out its mission. We applaud Director Allbaugh’s appointment of a strong leader with a distinguished fire service background as U.S. Fire Administrator. We further appreciate Director Allbaugh’s recognition, as evidenced by his advocacy, of the role of America’s fire and emergency service community in protecting our nation’s communities. His actions since assuming office will enhance the safety and security of all Americans.

Conclusion

Madam Chair, our testimony today has been strongly supportive of FEMA. The reason for this is simple. It has earned the support of the fire and emergency service based on a proven track record of providing invaluable training, equipment, and resources to America’s local “first responder” community both on-scene at disaster sites and during the ongoing planning and training that all responder organizations must constantly pursue. FEMA clearly recognizes that America’s local fire departments are the first line of disaster response in this country.

It is for this reason that we encourage Congress to utilize this Agency as you look to significantly enhance and improve America’s readiness capabilities. President Bush has budgeted an unprecedented amount of federal support for America’s “first responders” in the name of homeland security. We strongly urge Congress to utilize existing programs, specifically the Assistance to Firefighters grant program administered by FEMA, to ensure that these funds are quickly disbursed to the local responders who will use them efficiently and effectively to provide for the security of the American homeland ….

Source: International Association of Fire Chiefs

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