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My 2011 Class Trip to Washington

Let me share with you a number of my observations on how things went in Washington, D.C. Yes my friends, it is that time of the year. Spring is in the air and the flowers are in bloom in many parts of the nation. Once again, the fire service faithfuls have completed their 2011 pilgrimage to the halls of our nation's political power. You know, that is the place where all of the fertilizer for those flowers originates.

The events this spring have been interesting. I have seen the fire service come together in a much stronger way this year. It seems as though the theme of one of Pastor Scott Brown's Lenten sermons has made its way into the world of the American Fire Service. His April 3, 2011 sermon at the Colts Neck Reformed Church was entitled, "Everybody's Won When Everyone is One."

Quite simply he spoke of the importance of coming together. He spoke of the problems caused by discord among people. One of the primary aspects of this program which impressed me was the fact that people often fail to recognize the damage done by their discord.

It is almost as though he had heard Bobby Halton's fabulous main program speech on the importance of teamwork, which was presented at the Fire Department Instructor's Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis back in March. It is almost as though he had a premonition about what FEMA Director Craig Fugate was going to tell us at the fire caucus dinner during his keynote address. But how could he?

As I sat there next to my wife thinking and scribbling my notes, I surely agreed with him that far too much of our time is being spent today battling demons, both real and imagined. One of these battles involves those people who are inexorably bound to the ways of the past.

These folks really can see no reason to change the way things are done in their part of the fire service. But given the state of our economy here in America, this is surely a season where forging new relationships is critical. We are all facing unprecedented pressure to do more with less. Sorry gang, but the only thing you can really do with less, is less.

During the month just past, I have seen a great many good things. Thankfully these serve as a counterbalance to the not-so-good things we have all witnessed. I have also heard some really neat thoughts spoken by members of the fire service at the national level. It has long been my opinion that we all needed to be operating from the same sheet of music when it comes to working for the greater good of the fire service. I have seen a new model and it looks pretty good so far.

It was at FDIC that I heard a stirring example of the unity which our fire service really needs during these trying economic times. I heard words of friendship and camaraderie from a national leader within our nation's labor movement.

These words came from Harold Schaitberger, the General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters. He reminded us all about the coming economic storm he alluded to at last year's FDIC. He spoke of the many examples of fire department cuts around our nation. Mr. Schaitberger spoke of the fact that both the career and volunteer fire service are under attack. He told us that, "…we are all in this together."

He then went on to say that we are all just holding our own. He spoke of the trend among politicians to balance their budgets on the backs of those people who are actually doing the work within the public sector. As a resident of New Jersey, I am most familiar indeed with the efforts of our governor to portray those of us in the public as being greedy and consuming far too much of the public's money. This is pretty tough talk from a man who has yet to put in the state's share of money for our pension funds. Ah, but I digress on a point of personal privilege.

Mr. Schaitberger went on to state that, "… it is a time for us all to come together."

I could not agree more. People in Washington, D.C. are attacking our fire programs under the banner of cost-cutting. Thankfully, we have been able to battle back in order to have our Assistance to Firefighter Grant program and the SAFER program funded at a higher level than our President thought necessary.

That is for now: but what about the future? He also spoke of the fact that there are those who are attempting to pit one side against the other. I could not agree more. We cannot let this wedge be driven between our various associations. We all need to present a united front if we are to have any success in advancing our national fire service agenda.

During the time we were all in Washington, D.C. for the annual Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI) dinner, a number of folks came forward to say that their visits on Capitol Hill were not generating a great deal of good news. These were the people who made the pilgrimage to solicit support from their own legislators.

There was a palpable pall in the air as these folks shared their message with us at one of the watering holes at the Hilton. Most said that they were told to expect an even bigger battle for the bucks next year. Given the partisan battles raging under the Capitol dome, one can only wonder how bad it will be as we approach the Presidential election wars of 2012.

In light of these thoughts, let me share my impressions of the dinner. The speeches at the dinner were quite a bit different this year. The speeches were really long on support for all of the dedicated men and women of the American Fire Service. However, I think it is really important for me to add at this point that there was not a great deal of supportive buzz generated during the various speeches which were made at the Washington Hilton by the various leaders of the fire caucus.

This was a year without the usual array of promises for support in Congress. Like I said, the members of the fire caucus leadership corps loved us. They spoke of such things as supporting and not supplanting the efforts at the local level. Every time I hear the words "support not supplant" I have to reach for my wallet because I start to feel a federal hand reaching for my money. Given the amount of taxes that my wife and I had to pay for last year, this is not an unwarranted worry on my part.

Our Keynote Speaker this year was Craig Fugate, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He set the tone for the evening when he spoke of the fact that, "…rhetoric does not recognize the value of public service." A critical element of his speech revolved around the concept that we in the emergency response world are, "…a team (and that) we must continue to trust each other." He spoke of the need to empower our people to get the critical emergency service job done in America.

One of the best comments of the night came from Representative Rob Andrews (D-NJ). He spoke of the fact that our nation needs to learn a lesson in selfless service, if we are to regain our edge in the world. He told us all that this is, "…a value our country needs to learn from the fire service."

Congressman Andrews went on to state that a great many people in our country need to learn how to put someone else's interests above their own. He closed by stating that, as a nation, "…we are not perfect, but we are the best that there is … and the fire service is the best of the best." I surely agree with that observation.

One of the comments which came out a bit later also made a great deal of sense to me. That person stated that the fire service should not be caught in the crossfire between the political parties. I wish I could tell you which of the speakers uttered these words, but they sure as heck made a lot of sense to me. I really do not like being a prisoner in the annual Washington budgetary wars, but we've been there before and we sure as hell will be there again next year.

It has been my good fortune to have been an attendee at the fire caucus dinner for more than twenty years now. I might have missed a couple, but rest assured that I have made the overwhelming majority of them since they began back in 1988. Let me close by suggesting that we in the American Fire Service are on the road to reaching the goal suggested by Scott Brown's sermon. Let me also suggest that the fire service can only win if everyone becomes one. We have made a good start in early 2011. Let us continue our efforts as we move forward.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his "A View From my Front Porch" blog. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at drharrycarter@optonline.net.

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