Overreaction? Maybe. But Let’s Make Sure We’re Safe

Chief Billy Goldfeder, E.F.O.
Fire Engineering Contributing Editor
Battalion Chief, Loveland-Symmes Fire Department, Ohio

What seems to be some very strange stuff has been going on in Washington, D.C. recently. The events directly involve the fire service, and I believe that we should be real, REAL concerned. On the other hand, I wonder, “Am I overreacting?” I sure hope this is the case. But, it would be wise for the fire service to learn the facts and to act to preserve what we have gained in the past couple of years-just in case …. This is true even though there may be “breaks” in the activities that make us concerned (see the update at the end of this column).

At the core of these strange happenings was the notification sent out by the Feds this week informing us that the application process for the 2003 FIRE ACT GRANT PROGRAM was closed-it was being delayed because of “technical issues.” Could this be just a simple delay? Maybe.

Before I go any further, I want to say that, in my opinion, the fire service seemed to be in as good a light, as far as federal grant funding and support are concerned, as it has ever been. Is it great? NO. Is it better than what we have been getting? YES. Is it anywhere near as much as we need? NO. But the last few years have been a good start.

We also have some decent Fire people running the show at the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). Or, they used to run the show….

In the past few days, I’ve received some pretty reliable information that there is a distinct and very real possibility that the FIRE ACT Grant funds for 2003 (the ones you were supposed to apply for this month) may be getting tinkered with by an inbred group of clueless commanders from some “other” federal agencies…. Some say the perpetrators could be within the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the White House Office of Management and Budget. We’ll see. Something happened within the past few days to cause the 2003 FIRE ACT GRANT process to be put on hold.

But, other folks “right in the heat of it” say that the funding may just get shifted-or possibly cut along the way. Still other sources are saying that, although there’s talk regarding shifting OUR funding, the money may not go to the DOJ. Some speculate that the Office of Domestic Preparedness, an office that was housed within the DOJ and is now part of the Border and Transportation Security Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security, MAY become the beneficiary.

Who? Where? WHAT agency? How do WE get OUR funding?
Given all the changes last week, WHO is now OUR “FIRE voice” in Washington? The USFA was the closest thing we ever had to a VOICE for ALL fire service agencies at the federal level. Now, I get the feeling that it’s going to be a cubicle somewhere. What is going to happen to the firefighters who worked in the USFA? Those who have crawled down halls like the rest of us? What is going to happen to our supporters who were at the USFA? What about the non-firefighters who worked there, but who also understood what we needed?

In addition, did you know that on March 1, 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) became a member of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “family” within the Emergency Preparedness and Response (EPR) Directorate? Yeah-come on, you know …. it’s a Directorate! While they’ll continue to be using the FEMA name publicly after March 1, be sure to watch and see how the word fire will start to disappear. Hmmmm…I think it already has.

There will not be a U.S. FIRE Administration from what we can tell. Nope. Just like a whole bunch of “family” members moving into the same trailer park, the “Inside the Beltway In-breeders” will flourish. We have had?–up until last week!?–a U.S. FIRE ADMINISTRATION with good FIRE folks running and leading it. Soon though, it seems that they and our programs MAY end up in another part of the Federal Government: THE SMITHSONIAN. Is this overreaction? I certainly hope so.

A lot of this stuff is still happening, and we’re being told “It’s not final.” However, sitting back and waiting isn’t the answer this time!

We continue to hear about being prepared for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism activities; and, although we do have a level of concern for these areas, it seems the biggest threat to the FIRE service now appears to be in the form of the clueless commanders and bureaucrats who work for those we elected.

The only way that our nation’s fire service is going to have a chance to get better prepared (remember, many, many fire departments out there can just barely handle the basic day-to-day stuff–forget this other stuff!) is to get help from the Feds-the FIRE FEDS.

The only way that we will get noticed is to have FIRE people represent us, work for us, be identified as a part of us, and run and lead the programs. They also must have the AUTHORITY to get something done without having to walk to the front of the trailer park to beg “Big Daddy Bureaucrat” who, since other “family members kiss up better than we do,” will tell us to get back down where we belong. We’ve been there before.

Although we rarely encourage this type of activity, now would be a real good time for all of us to contact our federal elected officials to find out what really is going on with our fire-related federal services, federal identity, and our fire funding.

Please take some time to learn and to find out what is going on from your senators and members in the House of Representatives. I hope these concerns are unfounded, but somehow I think we just got terrorized. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Update: Well, we have received pretty reliable information that it appears that our Fire ACT grant program may be up and “open for business” again on Monday, March 10–for now. If that’s the case, get the final touches done on your e-application now.

What changed everything? We won’t believe anything other than that they got caught putting us over “the log in the woods,” and we were “squealing like a pig” just prior to the damage being done.

It is pretty clear that some of our FIRE fed friends are supporting us–the ones who have “crawled down hallways” like us. It also appears that Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge is keeping a closer eye on our needs in spite of the fact that he has some “inbred problem children” in his newly formed department. Some sources in Pennsylvania say Ridge is on our side. And, there is some fire history to prove that. So, we’ll be cautiously optimistic. We hope that “those in the know” will also make sure that our FIRE fed folks, good folks such as USFA Chief Dave Paulison and Chief Charlie Dickinson, and other FIRE fed folks at the “Office Formerly Known As the USFA” get the support they need to keep FIRE alive and well at the federal level. All indications are that these folks went to bat–and went to bat hard–this week. But, this is only the first inning. Big, BIG game(s) ahead.

Is everything fine now? NO. And we can’t act as if it were. They are still dreaming about us and that “log in the woods.” We have to keep making sure that our federally elected officials (Senate and Congress) keep FIRE funding, staffing, and positions in the forefront and that the USFA doesn’t become some “office in a cubicle.” Speak up and let them know how you feel.

This type of maneuvering is far from over, and I was reluctant to write this. However, the fact is that the FIRE ACT program was one of the smoothest and well-managed programs we’ve ever witnessed. It worked. It made a dent of a difference to many needy fire departments. Most importantly, it was (the best that we could tell) bipartisan. Any more “agency” or “official” or “political” involvement will mess it up.

We have a long, long way to go. We must keep screaming loudly and clearly.

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