Washington, D.C. – On June 4, 2003, the NVFC joined Members of Congress and representatives from a variety of fire services organizations in testifying in support of the SAFER Firefighters Act (H.R. 1118). Testifying on behalf of the NVFC was Chief Jeff Cash, NVFC North Carolina State Director and Chief of the Cherryville Fire Department in Cherryville, North Carolina.
During the hearing, Chief Cash eloquently made the case for Federal support to both hire firefighters and initiate volunteer recruitment and retention programs. “The SAFER Bill also needs to include a recruitment and retention component,” he said. “These grants would go a long way to reverse the trend of high turnover in the volunteer fire service as well as the national trend that has resulted in a loss of nearly 15% of the volunteer ranks in the last 20 years.”
Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA), who is currently working to ensure that a modified version of the SAFER bill that was recently incorporated into the Senate Defense Authorization bill stays in the final version, agreed with Chief Cash.
“Ask any firefighter or EMS worker across the country what they need, and manpower will top the list,” he said. “The SAFER Act is a necessary piece of legislation that will finally cure the personnel shortfalls that are endangering our communities. My amendment to the Defense Authorization bill will provide career and volunteer fire departments with what they need most while addressing specific issues surrounding volunteer recruitment and retention. At the same time this measure will prevent states from lowering their previous levels of firefighter and EMS funding.” During his testimony, Weldon also referred to the NVFC/USFA Recruitment and Retention Report, citing pages and pages of ideas for increasing the ranks of the volunteer fire service.
H.R. 1118 authorizes the U.S. Fire Administrator to make grants to local governments to hire additional firefighters. Modeled after the successful COPS Program, career, combination and volunteer fire departments would jointly share the costs of hiring new firefighters over a four-year period until the local jurisdiction could absorb the responsibility of funding the new positions. Many witnesses suggested that the program track the same route as the highly efficient Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, where applications are competitive, peer reviewed and available online.
Representative Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) and Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), both lead sponsors of the SAFER Bill, also testified in favor of the bill.
All witnesses agreed that lack of personnel on an emergency scene increases the chances of a firefighter being injured. “Personnel shortages are a tremendous concern to America’s fire service,” added Cash. “Many departments, in communities of all sizes, struggle on a daily basis to adequately staff local fire stations and respond to calls. Personnel shortfalls endanger the safety of firefighters and hinder the ability of first responders to effectively protect the public from fire and other hazards. Many studies and standards indicate there needs to be a minimum number of personnel on-scene to perform lifesaving measures safely. Simply put, when firefighters cannot safely work, they are unable to save lives and property.”
Cash also spoke in favor of adding language to the bill to protect the right of a career firefighter to volunteer in other jurisdictions during their off-duty hours.
Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), lead sponsor of the bill said, “What it comes down to is this: Without really thinking about it, we expect our fire departments to perform a range of services that are absolutely critical to the health and well-being, indeed the survival, of our citizens. We need to ensure that our fire departments have the staff and the equipment to carry out their work.”
Chairman Boehlert also noted he intends to work with House Leadership, Committee colleagues and fire policy leaders such as Curt Weldon and Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) to develop a strategy for ensuring that SAFER is not only included, but strengthened, in the final Defense Authorization legislation that is sent to the President.