The editors of the major fire service publications have united to address central fire service issues. We have agreed to take a stand together on these issues and offer recommendations on what needs to be done to resolve them. —The Editors of Fire Engineering, Fire Chief, Firehouse, and Fire Rescue
For many years, the fire service—due in part to the absence of a united voice—has suffered from a lack of political influence in Washington. This translates into a lack of federal support for local emergency response needs. Politicians conveniently espoused the position that fire is an exclusively “local issue.” The increasing response demands on local fire departments—far exceeding the local and state resources—were ignored.
That began to change in 2000 with the groundbreaking passage of the FIRE Act. For the first time in history, federal appropriations were targeted directly to assist local fire departments in securing basic needs for everyday emergency response operations.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, illustrated in the most painful way the role of local agencies—and the fire department, in particular—during the first 24 hours of terrorism response. As the subsequent War on Terrorism emphasized full-scale preparedness for attacks on American soil, most of us believed the federal government would finally recognize the fire service as a critical, prominent variable in the domestic preparedness equation and act accordingly. However, the Bush Administration, with congressional blessing, has reacted in the following manner on two critical issues:
First, it underfunded the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and buried it deep within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), once again leaving the fire service without a major voice in the federal hierarchy at a time when a major fire service presence is most needed.
Second, ignoring the spirit and intent of the legislation, it has taken administration of the FIRE Act out of the USFA and has placed it within the DHS Borders and Transportation Directorate, thereby threatening this critical federal program’s future.
Both of these decisions are detrimental to the fire service and the American citizens it protects.
The USFA is the only agency within the federal bureaucracy that speaks for the fire service. It’s telling that both the Bush Administration and Congress failed to include the position of USFA Fire Administrator in the DHS reorganization. It took another act of Congress to restore the position. But in the Washington bureaucracy, budgets and table of organizations mean power, or lack thereof. The fire service is not a power player within DHS. Its voice is weak, buried under layers of bureaucracy.
Who is stating our case for enhanced domestic preparedness? Orange alerts and preventive measures are one thing, but if Americans think most (if not all) of our local agencies are fully prepared for the next attack, they are mistaken, or misled. DHS has not responded urgently to congressional testimony from fire chiefs from around the country painting a bleak picture of response capabilities. Nor does it seem to have paid much attention to reports from groups such as The Council of Foreign Relations, a New York-based nonpartisan research group. In its preparedness report “Emergency Responders: Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared,” the Council stated that “the U.S. remains dangerously ill-prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil.”
Washington signals have led the American public into thinking that some federal group will protect Americans in the critical first stages of a WMD incident. This is, of course, fictitious. Despite the increased attention on firefighters in the wake of 9/11, the public is largely unaware of the connection between local fire department budget cuts, station closures, equipment and training shortages, staffing cuts, etc. and WMD preparedness. The public is unaware of the absence of direction from DHS in response preparedness as it relates to the local fire department. The public is unaware that one of the reasons for this lack of direction is that the USFA doesn’t have the funding or power to develop a nationwide fire service response plan, among other objectives critical to homeland preparedness.
As a weak USFA minimizes the fire service, so is it minimized by moving administration of the FIRE Act into the Office of Domestic Preparedness, which resides within the DHS Borders and Transportation Directorate, which has no connections with the fire service. This is a politically calculated move whose only goal is to repurpose existing appropriations for basic fire department needs into the DHS’ WMD bureaucracy.
The FIRE Act has been overwhelmingly successful for the past four years because the USFA understands the fire service and because grant monies are distributed directly from the federal government to local fire departments who have demonstrated real, basic needs, such as bunker gear, SCBA, hose, apparatus, training, fire prevention, etc. Its primary purpose was not to fund special equipment needs for WMD incidents. A fire department that doesn’t have sufficient bunker gear isn’t in the market for Level A suits. A fire department that needs SCBA is not going to buy radiological monitors. Removing administration of the FIRE Act from USFA and “repurposing” the monies not only removes a critical funding source for local preparedness for everyday incidents but leaves many fire departments behind in preparing for the WMD incidents.
It is imperative that the FIRE Act be reauthorized and reappropriated by Congress for 2005 and beyond. The Reauthorization Bill must include provisions such that its administration is returned to the USFA, where it belongs. A strong and properly administered FIRE Act program is essential to local fire department operational capabilities and, by extension, the health and well-being of American citizens.
It is also imperative that Congress address the absence of a strong fire service voice within DHS. Congress must create a Fire and Emergency Services Directorate within DHS and establish the position of Deputy Director for Fire and Emergency Services, to report directly to the Secretary of Homeland Defense and be involved in decision-making processes at the highest levels. This person must have a strong fire service background. The USFA and the National Fire Academy should be part of this new directorate. The USFA budget must be properly funded so it can develop a national fire response plan and carry out initiatives essential to the goal of response preparedness—both for “everyday” and WMD incidents.