Guest Commentary: A Debt We Can Never Truly Repay

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In September, we remembered the heroic sacrifices of more than 400 firefighter and police officers who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. We honored their courage – and the courage of all first responders – in putting their lives on the line so others could live theirs. The heroism first responders showed that day lifted our nation off of its knees. And, 10 years later, we still owe them for putting themselves in harm’s way each and every day, in order to keep their communities safe.

It’s a debt we can never truly repay. But we can show our support whenever possible by making sure that firefighters are included in our efforts to rebuild the middle class and revitalize cities and towns everywhere.

Later in September, the President sent the American Jobs Act to Congress. We know that state and local budget crunches have led to the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of state and local employees – including firefighters and other first responders – and we are using this bill as a way to bring many of those jobs back.

The American Jobs Act will provide $30 billion to save 280,000 teachers’ and first responders’ jobs. The bill sets aside $1 billion specifically for fire departments to make new hires, rehire laid-off firefighters or avoid layoffs. Estimates indicate that more than 7,000 firefighters are facing layoffs this year on top of the thousands of fire jobs that have already been lost. Thousands of these jobs can be saved if Congress will pass this American Jobs Act.

And the Act finally follows through on a commitment that was made on 9/11, an investment in modernizing public safety communications to allow firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians to talk to one another. Lives were lost on 9/11 because of the lack of a reliable and integrated communications system. This is unacceptable. We’re seeking to provide $10 billion to deliver on this nationwide network – that’s gigantic. The network we’re fighting for will use broadband technology to allow firefighters, police officers and other first responders to have a stronger, more reliable communications system. It simply makes no sense that as you rush into burning buildings, and as you try to save American lives, you don’t have access to the same technology that my grandkids do on their iPhones.

First responders need to communicate even when no one else can. They should have video, image, data and voice capability. Imagine applications that accurately pinpoint the real-time location of firefighters inside a burning building – so even if you have lost sight or contact with your colleagues, you can locate them. Imagine being able to use handheld devices to view building schematics or transmit pictures from an accident scene ahead to doctors in the emergency room. The potential is enormous.

It’s all part of our efforts to give you what you need to do your jobs, while also giving you what you need to support your families. If there’s any definition of the middle class, you’re it. Beyond what the Act does for firefighters and police officers, it also cuts payroll taxes in half, putting $1,500 back in a typical family’s pockets. It cuts taxes on small businesses – providing special incentives for small businesses to start hiring. It also puts people back to work rebuilding and improving our roads, bridges, railways and airports and modernizing 35,000 schools.

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t pass this bill immediately. My dad has an expression: Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget and I’ll show you what you value. That’s what American families have to do and that’s what the President and I have done with this bill. We’ve laid out what we believe is absolutely necessary to spark the economy and give the middle class a fighting chance.

We can’t afford not to do this, but we’re going to have to make some tough choices. We value a strong, modern school system, with enough teachers in the classroom to educate our children successfully, even if it means hedge-fund millionaires who currently pay less in taxes than many middle-class Americans will have to pay more. We value giving a tax cut to middle-class Americans who need it right now, instead of a tax windfall to oil companies that don’t. And we value the lives and work of firefighters, police officers and EMTs everywhere. They are an important part of the fabric of American life, and we owe them our support in every way possible.

The American Jobs Act is one way we can support them. I urge Congress to take action and pass it, so our nation’s firefighters, police officers and EMTs can keep doing what they do to make American families and communities safer and stronger.

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