President Bush submitted his budget request for 2007, and in it he asks for $293 million for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program. This is almost 50 percent less than last year. This continued senseless reduction is completely unacceptable. Congress appropriated $545 million for 2007; that amount also is unacceptable. We will not be satisfied this year unless we get the $1 billion promised by Congress in 2004.
Since 2004, we have seen reduction after reduction of this highly effective and extremely well-managed program. I am not saying the AFG program is perfect; there is always room for improvement. However, it is the best instrument yet for getting money to firefighters for what we really need. In the President’s budget request, SAFER-an innovative program that provides financial support to hire and retain firefighters-is not funded at all. That’s right, zero. The U.S. Forest Service Volunteer Fire Assistance Program is cut by 40 percent, despite the fact that the Southwest is tragically in a severe drought and thousands of acres are burning daily.
While sitting in a congressional office in Washington last month, I mentioned my displeasure with the President’s proposed budget to a congressman’s staffer, commenting: “The President really let us down with his proposed cuts.” I asked the staffer, “Do politicians understand how badly firefighters need these grants? Do they understand that these critical grant dollars provide life-saving training and equipment so firefighters can go out and do what we did in Katrina and Rita? Do they understand these grants let us continue to be America’s first line of defense?” He said, “Don’t worry; Congress will fix it. It is all part of the game.”
I was angry beyond words. The safety and survival of firefighters and the Americans we serve are not part of a ¿game.¿ The days of our being a bargaining chip in the political manipulations of Capitol Hill must end. Our tools and our ability to provide quick, efficient, and professional service are no places for political gamesmanship. It needs to be clearly understood that we are the lifeline for millions of Americans each year, in disasters both nationally and personally-when Mother Nature decides to level 90,000 square miles of the most beautiful land on the Gulf Coast and when a teenager’s appendix bursts at 2 a.m. in Idaho Falls.
In every community, there is a level of threat, risk, whatever you want to call it-something (or things) we are trusted and relied on to be able to save and protect. It could be a factory that employs the town, a hospital, housing in general, whatever. Every city, town, or village has some basic protection needs. Our ability to respond with properly staffed, well-trained people in a reasonable amount of time is how we can measure whether we are providing the protection our citizens need.
The grant money spent so far from the AFG and SAFER by and large has been the beginning of doing just that: balancing community needs with fire department response. The balance may just be in establishing a holding action until neighbors and friends or state or federal assistance arrives. It is that ability to provide the most basic tools, training, and equipment to our front-line firefighters that has been the hallmark of the AFG. The AFG program is one that every American should be proud of-proud of its low administrative costs, its efficient operations, and its insider support.
Those who represent us-the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)-must understand what we expect from them. The famous mathematician Jacob Bronowski, in The Ascent of Man, said, “Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures. You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That is really crucial today.”
To put it in more straightforward terms, we must stand up for what we believe! We who recognize the threats to our communities and who can measure our ability to meet those threats are the “informed.” The only responsible ethical action from any of us whose honor and strength come from the integrity of being an American firefighter is to stand up for what we believe. We must insist our selected representatives do not settle for less than is necessary or less than you have earned¿and less than the community so desperately needs.
We, the IAFF, the IAFC, the NVFC, and the Congressional Fire Caucus must realize it is time to live up to our responsibility as ethical creatures, ethical firefighters, and stand up for what we believe. We most often compromise our integrity when we are afraid. When we are afraid, we think others will not like what we have to say or will be offended by our position. And if we act on our fears, we only make them come true.
We compromise our integrity when we fail to demand action just so we can get a photo opportunity in the White House. We compromise our integrity if we rationalize by saying we need to understand the times and big picture and are willing to accept less than what is so desperately needed. I have never seen a
When you are informed, you know adequate staffing is critical; you know you cannot do more with less-you can only do less with less. If you do not have enough firefighters to do all the required tasks, then something has to be prioritized, and that means something suffers. The President once said, on the ruined World Trade Center’s hallowed ground, that America hears us and he hears us. Talk is cheap; it doesn’t buy bunker gear or replace worn-out engines or save firefighters’ lives. With all due respect, Mr. President, show us the money. We are not talking about using grants for frills. Here we are talking essentials.
America’s firefighters are worth a federal investment of $1 billion. The AFG and SAFER are the best domestic uses of taxpayer money. I don’t want us to settle for the $500 million restored; I want the $1 billion Congress approved in 2004. I also want the safer Act re-funded, only this time bigger and better. We have the proof that staffing matters. Remember, you get 100 percent of what you don’t ask for; ask for nothing, and you get nothing.
Studies such as the one conducted by Providence, Rhode Island, compared staffing levels of three-firefighter companies with those of four-firefighter companies. The results showed that with the increased staffing, there was “a 23.8 percent decrease in the number of reported injuries, a 25 percent decrease in the number of time-loss injuries, a 71 percent decrease in work time lost, and a dramatic decrease in the frequency and severity of fire injuries.” None of the informed needed this study. We know.
On April 6, we are going to the Congressional Fire Services Institute Annual Dinner to eat with and lobby the members of Congress for you. Let’s promise to stand up for our informed integrity. Let’s tell them we are not going to be satisfied with crumbs falling from the plate of the Department of Homeland Security. We are thrilled the U.S. Fire Administration is now a line item in the federal budget and that funding is up four percent. It’s about time. But we need more. We need to be recognized at the same level as, say, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is time the integrity, strength, and honor of the American fire service were recognized in more than speeches and memorials. Let’s stand up together for what we believe.