Washington, D.C. – The president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) called the near-unanimous passage of the budget for the new Department of Homeland Security by the House of Representatives on Tuesday night “a step in the right direction, but just a first step.”
The $29.4 billion appropriated includes $4.4 billion for local firefighters, law enforcement and other emergency responders who are on the frontlines of the nation’s domestic war on terrorism. Also adopted was an amendment sponsored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Nebraska) to increase spending on the FIRE Act grant program for local fire departments from $500 million to $750 million for FY 2004.
“While we applaud the much needed infusion of homeland security funds for fire fighters, we still have concerns that it is not enough, and much of it will be siphoned off before it gets to the local level,” said Harold Schaitberger, General President of the IAFF. “Two-thirds of fire departments are understaffed, making it difficult to handle fire suppression and medical calls, much less deal with terrorist threats.”
Staffing is the most critical need of the fire service, both to meet terrorism and standard emergency responds needs. The IAFF supports federal legislation that authorizes hiring additional fire fighters to meet these demands. The situation is exasperated by the faltering economy, which is forcing many cities to make cuts in their fire departments, even as the demand for emergency services expands. For example, 12 Somerville, Mass. fire fighters are slated to be laid off on Saturday night, just hours before the department participates in a multi-jurisdiction terrorism response drill.
Schaitberger also emphasized the concern, echoed by the nation’s mayors, that more of the homeland security money needs to be sent directly to local governments to provide direct assistance to firefighters and police. The IAFF is concerned that too much of the funds will be used at state and regional levels to bolster bureaucracies at the expense of line firefighters.