THE USFA SWEEPSTAKES
First it was Goss. Next it was Alfred. The latest name in the nomination sweepstakes to head the United States Fire Administration—a process bungled by the Clinton Administration almost from the start—is Carrye B. Brown.
Brown’s nomination, coming almost a year after the president took office, exposes not only the president’s casual attitude toward the fire service and the USFA administrator position but the hypocrisy of fire service groups that play divisive back-door politics while professing devotion to Joe Firefighter and the national fire safety mission.
The choice of Kay Goss, the Arkansas governor’s senior liaison to the state’s emergency responders, was widely applauded in the fire service. By all indications, she was a shoc-in. It came as a shock, therefore, when last summer the White House leaked to the Washington Post that Ray Alfred, not Goss, was the only person for the job. Why the change of heart? A White House botch job, say insiders, plain and simple.
As it had for Goss, the fire service in large numbers rallied around Alfred, a 30-year fire service veteran and recently retired chief of the Washington (DC) Fire Department. But the International Association of Fire Fighters, angered that the White House had chosen a new candidate without consulting it first, particularly since it had vigorously supported the Clinton election campaign, swiftly engineered the demise of candidate Alfred.
The White House, anxious to appease the IAFF, dropped Alfred like a hot potato, then beckoned the union to arrive at an administrator candidate. The president’s only criterion, according to an IAFF official, was that the nominee be “politically correct.” In November, the IAFF offered the name of Carrye B. Brown. Senate confirmation hearings could be as early as this month.
Carrye Brown is a professional staff member on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Science. She has held that position for 16 years, during which time she worked Congress to help pass important fire service legislation, including the Arson Prevention Act of 1993, the Hotel-Motel Fire Safety Act of 1990, and measures against the elimination of the USFA itself.
Her additional experience and education include a 1973 bachelor’s degree in home economics from Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas; a two-year stint teaching the subject at Matador High School; a 1976 British postgraduate teaching certificate from the lad}SpencerChurchill College of Education; and a master’s degree in child development from Texas Woman’s University, which she received about a year after she began working on the Hill.
Will die fire service support the confirmation of a Washington staffer to what, at least symbolically, is the highest office in the American fire service?
“Before the Congressional Fire Services Institute, there was Carrye Brown, who understood the fire service and fire safety issues,” says Came Brown “1 have not had the pleasure to be a firefighter, but there are lots of different ways to serve the fire service other than riding the truck. Tile IAFF, International Society of Fire Service Instructors, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and International Association of Black Professional Firefighters are my colleagues; I’ve worked with them for more than a decade. I know where to get the firefighting expertise. 1 have experience no one else has, 1 knowCongress, and 1 think that’s needed.”
“We have worked with Carrye Brown for a number of years, and she has been enormously helpful in getting key legislation passed,” says a spokesperson for the National Association of State Fire Marshals.
“We need someone who’s in the Washington vanguard,” says an IAFF official. “We need someone who has years of experience dealing specifically with fire service issues and has no vested interest in any fire service group”
“Damn right, I support her!” says Edward H. McCormack, executive director of the ISFSI. “She’s the best there is at knowing how to maneuver the fire programs through the Halls of Congress.”
“She’s the president’s nominee, and as such, we support her,” says an IAFC official.
“We haven’t reached a decision on the nomination at this time,” says Robert “Red” McKeon, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council, almost two months after the nomination was announced.
So goes the winding fire service road. So the winds of Washington blow across it. The IAFF scores an empty victory; the ISFSI anticipates the installment of an ally who could lead it closer to the National Fire Academy pot of gold at the end of the Society rainbow; the IAFC, which throughout this affair refused a White House invitation to suggest a candidate, is suddenly afflicted with the meekness flu; and the NVFC takes its sweet time but eventually will fall in line behind the IAFC. So it is played out, far from the sounds of sirens, crackling wood, and cries for help.
Make no mistake; The fire service groups queuing up in support of the nominee will drag an apathetic or ignorant fire service along with them. As far as professional qualifications go, one word from these groups will suffice for the confirming senators, for whom using bureau appointments as political plums is as natural as their morning prunes— unless, of course, many firefighters across the country speak out independently to Washington, which would truly be a historical precedent.
But you first would have to believe that the USFA administrator is important to you. You would have to see past fire service manipulators who would like you to believe that there are few, if any, leaders in the United States fire service with the administrative capability and political savvy to cut it in the Washington bureaucracy. Who would like you to think that the USFA has accomplished nothing in the past 10 years. Who have tried to create the impression that one staffer has written the score, played the parts, and conducted the fire service symphony. Who do not want you to know that competent, politically minded career personnel already staff the USFA and that these people have been working the Hill successfully for years.
You would have to override those who want you to think that the administrator’s job is more navigating congressional buildings than’ charting the national fire safety course. Why do they want you to think that? Perhaps because they would like you to unknowingly consign the real political decision making to a few well-connected “leaders” behind the scenes, which, after all, is business as usual. Then defining the “real* issues” and finding the “expertise” are as simple as pushing one of six speed-dial numbers on the telephone, the first of which, in the case of Brown, would be that of the IAFF.
Ask yourself, Should the fire service stand behind a professional staffer or a USFA administrator whose fire service and fire safety experience is soaked with fireground blood, sweat, and tears?
“I’ve served the fire service for 30 years, but they grabbed a staffer off the Hill,” says Ray Alfred. “No one ever called me to say ‘you’re not going to be nominated,’ not the White House, not FEMA; and the union has not admitted it opposed me or why…. We have yet to speak with one voice. It would have been great to unite, but we were divided— again. I’m disappointed in the leadership of the International Fire Fighters.”
It will be more disappointing still should we concede that politicos are better qualified than firefighters to lead the USFA’s national fire safety effort. That’s a far, far cry from the strong fire service-oriented United States Fire Administration envisioned by the framers of America Burning just 20 years ago.