Firefighters Gather to Promote Issues at CFSI

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Nearly 2,000 fire and rescue personnel from around the country have responded to the nation's capital to promote a myriad of issues.

"The attendance is about the same as last year," CFSI Executive Director Bill Webb said.

Despite budget cutbacks across the country, Webb said it was rewarding to see the number of people who've come to participate in the 23rd annual National Fire and Emergency events that will culminate Thursday evening with dinner and presentation of several awards.

DHS Director Craig Fugate will deliver the keynote.

Webb said fire officials understand the importance of going to Capitol Hill to lobby for vital legislative matters.

"The fire service is facing major cuts. We're still waiting for appropriations for FY '11 and 12," he said. "This is certainly not the time for complacency."

Many personnel set up meetings with their representatives months ago. "I think this is an opportunity to rally the forces..."

On Wednesday afternoon, about 70 people showed up to learn about programs available for personnel who give the ultimate sacrifice while serving their communities.

The session was fitting as the theme of this year's program is Remembering, Honor, Courage and Sacrifice.

Hope Janke, director of Public Safety Officers' Benefits (PSOB) Office at the Department of Justice, told the group she considers it an honor to work with survivors of fallen personnel.

To her and her staff, it's more than a case. "It's about a fallen officer..."

Janke explained the process of obtaining $318,111 in benefits is not an easy one. Specific criteria must be met for the family to receive the funds.

One of the toughest is proving that a person who died of disease contracted it while they were on duty. No decision has been made whether personnel who perished of cancer and other maladies after working at Ground Zero will be eligible.

Getting the word out about PSOB is an ongoing initiative. Janke said she's surprised how many folks don't know about the benefits program.

A few months ago, Janke and her staff sent out more than 60,000 information kits explaining PSOB that was established in 1976.

A call center also has been established, and is staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Janke said she understands the frustration of automatic phone prompts.

Having someone to answer the call just makes sense, she added.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, who moderated the session, said while some deaths are not preventable others are.

"Some line-of-duty deaths are not avoidable. This is a risky job," he said. "Sometimes everything was done right, and something goes wrong..."

Goldfeder asked: "Should every firefighter death be recognized as line-of-duty?" That discussion, he admitted, generates emotions.

Goldfeder said the prevention of firefighter deaths and injuries begins at each department whether tiny or large.

Requiring physicals and promoting fitness would reduce the number of firefighter deaths from stroke and heart attack.

He added that behavior modification, while not easy to promote, is vital.

Goldfeder added that there are any number of grant programs available to provide the tools necessary. But, it will take a cultural change.

Kyle L. Ienn did something to change his firefighters' behavior when he took over as chief of Ralston, Neb. Fire Department.

He ordered the firehouse bar shut down, and the kegs removed.

Ienn said it frightened him when he would walk into the fire house to find half empty beer glasses and the trucks gone.

He agreed that his decision didn't sit well with some of his crew, but this was one decision not open for discussion.

Ienn established a team in his state that helps departments and families of firefighters who suffer serious injury or die on the job.

"We offer any assistance we can. We help plan the funeral, and most importantly tell the family what a firefighter funeral is all about and what they can expect.

National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Executive Director Ron Siarnicki gave an overview of the programs available to support survivors.

In addition, they will be sponsoring a camp for children of fallen heroes. Siarnicki said it will provide a chance for them to get together with other kids suffering the same loss.

The foundation also is working with survivors who want to participate in a speakers' bureau. Many have expressed interest in sharing their stories at conferences and at other venues.