Fairfax, VA – Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge met informally with the International Association of Fire Chiefs Board of Directors, chaired by IAFC President Chief Ernest Mitchell, on Friday January 30. Ridge said, “It’s rare just to sit down and just have a conversation, no speech.”
Members of the board were able to engage the secretary on a number of topics. He told board members in clear terms that they had “made their point” concerning the FIRE Act grant program. He also hinted the budget request for the FIRE Act for this fiscal year would be the same as the proposed amount for FY2004. On February 2, the administration released President Bush’s budget request for fiscal year 2005. It requested $500 million dollars for the FIRE Act, the same as the president’s fiscal year 2004 proposal.
Ridge said the department is consolidating the management of its first responder grant programs, including those managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP). Ridge said it was a consolidation of process, not of the grants. The Office for Domestic Preparedness and the Office for State and Local Programs will be merged. Sue Mencer, the current head of ODP, will lead the new organization. Mencer was present earlier in the day to meet with the board.
The board had a lively discussion with the secretary about federal homeland security funding making it to the local level. Ridge said his office is working with state and local governments to develop a better distribution program and asked the chiefs in the room if they had been included in the process in their home states. Many responded affirmatively. Ridge said he is meeting with governors this week and will ask them to assist in designing a distribution strategy and template. “Governors must take the lead, but they must be inclusive,” he said. He acknowledged problems with the process, particularly with the pre-purchase of equipment-many chiefs do not know they can order the equipment and may be reimbursed prior to receiving the equipment without cash layout.
The IAFC board and Secretary Ridge also discussed placards on rail cars. The secretary acknowledged the concerns of the fire service and said he would engage the first responder community in discussions on this issue.
IAFC President Ernest Mitchell said, “This was a valuable meeting with Secretary Ridge, one we hope paves the way for future meetings of this kind.”