THE SKY ISN’T FALLING …

BY BILL MANNING

but it’s not real hard to understand why it seems that way to many in the fire service who follow the politics of national emergency preparedness and response.

Like many, I saw in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security an extraordinary opportunity for the fire service. We envisioned greater representation at the national level, greater support from the federal government, greater involvement in national response issues. We sensed that we’d gain a greater foothold in federal politics and in so doing increase our ability to handle the everyday disasters and the major disasters with a confidence that can only come from better training, better planning, better systems, and beefed-up resources.

Has that vision materialized? To a point, it has. Are we better off than we were four years ago? In some ways, yes. But I don’t think, after eight fire company closures last month, that the brothers and sisters in Philadelphia feel that things are better. I don’t suspect those who receive the educational benefits and other services from the United States Fire Administration/National Fire Academy are celebrating the recent $11 million in program cuts, representing 25 percent of the USFA budget. You can’t get too excited when Congress and the Bush Administration jointly fail to appropriate the FIRE Act to authorized levels. And you have to be just plain scared that, at the 9-11 Commission Hearings in New York, when asked if Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s excuse for a “citywide incident management system” meets the DHS NIMS standard for federal funding, DHS Secretary Tom Ridge testified, “My preliminary conclusion is that it does …. My sense is that the mayor is moving in the right direction.” What, we can morph NIMS into anything we want it to be, for political ends? It’s moronic statements like that—and more important, what they portend—whereby I’m given to fleeting thoughts that the sky actually has lowered, and that if “they” could eliminate the fire service from their political world altogether, “they” would.

Nevertheless, as the sky has not yet fallen and there’s still much work to be done, it’s in our interest to conduct a political reality check. Feel free to add to the list.

  • Politics doesn’t change much. Only the players change. Politics is the same mean game of power and money it’s been for thousands of years. Get used to it.
  • Ethics might govern politics to some measure (though sometimes it’s hard to tell). Morality never does, no matter what anyone says. There’s a “Senate Ethics Committee.” There is no “Senate Morality Committee.” The fire service’s “moral indignation” approach to political arguments is tedious, overused, and banal. Most of the time, it’s like yelling into a hurricane expecting to be heard. How about strong reason supported by data? Oh, do we have any real-time data?
  • The fire service is not an attractive political constituency. We’re hard to work with. We take many different forms. We argue a lot. Remember the battles waged over the creation and passage of the FIRE Act? Our two largest and most important organizations initially did not support the FIRE Act, for heaven’s sake. That’s the way we are—not pretty, politically speaking. Unless that somehow changes, don’t be surprised that you’re not invited to power breakfasts. Invite yourself.
  • “Heroism” gets you a rubber chicken dinner, a boring speech, a photo op with your representative, and a 50-word article on page 38. It gets you pats on the back, but it doesn’t by itself give you the key to the Federal Treasury. Don’t expect it to.
  • Fear and greed are the two most powerful forces in politics. It’s time for the fire service to start scaring people in Washington. “Money for votes” is the credo of the world’s second oldest profession (not too unlike the first oldest profession, if you think about it).
  • Power players are not going to hand you any of their chips so you can stay in the game. It’s unconscionable that there’s no fire service representative at the highest levels of DHS; unconscionable that the cop-driven Office of Domestic Preparedness controls all the federal WMD training; unconscionable that the FIRE Grant has been sucked into the ODP complex; unconscionable that the USFA continues to sustain cuts; etc., but so what? There’s only one course of action. Have you written your federal representatives and told them so? I’ll bet you haven’t.
  • There’s no shortage of stupid ideas in Washington. We need to be vigilant. For example, the Rand Corporation recently released a major study calling for the formation of an elite federal rescue team to be deployed as part of the federal response to major disasters, in effect, to “rescue the rescuers,” like a federal RIT team. Talk about overkill. Hasn’t the Beltway Braintrust heard of FEMA US&R teams? Or has the President cut them already (his 2005 budget proposal threatened to)?
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking people in Washington have any idea of what you do or what your capabilities are. If we don’t educate them, who will? Law enforcement?
  • Never underestimate a power player’s power and his hunger to exercise it. Take note: NYPD’s entry into the rescue/response business with its Emergency Service Units started small. But it grew, and by the mid-1980s, the police commissioner was threatening to resign rather than lose these redundant units. In 2004, of course, NYPD has become a full-fledged rescue/response entity, with management and control over all WMD incidents in that city. Think it ends there? Think it’s just a New York story, that the concept can’t be exported, that police chiefs don’t speak to one another? Coming down the highway, greased with the big bucks from an approving DHS, straight to a police station near you ….
  • Keeping up the pressure does work sometimes. President Bush tried to zero-fund the FIRE Act twice. We still don’t have the money originally authorized, but we do have a FIRE Act.
  • We’re going to lose some battles. That’s politics.

Ending on a positive, Congressman Chris Cox (R-CA), chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, has introduced H.R. 3266, The Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act of 2004. The bill removes the FIRE Act and other funding for “traditional missions” from DHS; prioritizes DHS funding based on risk (not pork!); and helps reduce administrative bottlenecks to first responder funding, among other things. If the bill has not yet made it to the House floor for a full vote as of this writing, write your representatives in the House to support this important legislation. And write your senators either way to support it.

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