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Taken for Granted, Taken Away

This commentary is about a subject near and dear to my heart. I am referring to the FIRE Act Assistance for Firefighters Grant (AFG) program and its allied fire prevention, SAFER, and the station construction associates. Many among you have come to believe that these programs have always been around and will always be there for you. Many among you have come to take these things for granted. The purpose of this commentary is to share some important thoughts with you.

My friends, I would ask you to let me stand on a moment of personal pride here as I begin this visit with you. I have been closely tied to these programs since before they were born. I can recall being in on the negotiations which were held back in the late 1990's to create an awareness of our problems with folks in the federal government. My associates and I spent a great deal of time in Washington and we met with a wide range of people in order to gain support for the concept of a federal involvement in local fire service matters.

Back in those days it was quite difficult to overcome the perception in Washington, D.C. that municipal fire protection was anything more than a local matter. We worked hard, but were often met with a bland response that the federal government had no business being in the local fire world. Personally, I found this to be quite difficult to accept, since I knew that the law enforcement world was the beneficiary of literally billions of dollars of federal largess.

I can recall a get-together in Arlington, VA back in 1999. This was a meeting of a group called the Fire Service Summit. At that time I was representing the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (IFSFI). Each of the national fire service organizations was represented at that gathering. We had a number of wide-ranging discussions on how to break down the wall of resistance to our pleas for federal assistance.

There came a time when someone was able to identify a legislator who would step up to the plate and go to bat for us. That person offered to sponsor legislation for an annual $1 million program for the fire service. I can recall that there were some really heated discussions on this matter.

Some among us saw this offer as too little, while others were actually insulted by the amount. However, there were a number of us who spoke up in defense of the proposal. We looked at it as a start. We looked at it as a foot in the door. As my late grandmother was so fond of saying, a little something beats a whole lot of nothing.

Around this time, Congressman Bill Pascrell from New Jersey stepped forward with his proposed Firefighters Investment and Response Enhancement (FIRE) Act. He was working the House of Representatives and was able to gain support from President Clinton. A number of us stepped forward to offer our support. He was able to gain over 280 signatures on the bill and it was passed and signed into law.

Let me assure you that we were all pleased with Congressman Pascrell's efforts. I can recall being present in the FEMA Command Center as we worked on the very first draft of how the topic areas were to be selected. I can recall the fancy footwork, as a number of us worked to insure that firefighter safety and firefighter training were an integral part of the mix.

I can also recall being at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg. MD, when the initial criteria for the grant program were born from the labors of a great many caring and concerned fathers. It was not an easy task to determine what the criteria would look like and how they would be administered, but it did work out in the end.

One of the key elements of this program, for which many of us fought quite hard, was the use of expert panels from the actual fire service world. This program is perhaps the exception among federal grant programs in that all of the applications are reviewed by members of the fire service who have been trained to a common standard on how to grade and score the applications for AFG funding.

We have all seen the ebb and flow of events over the course of the last decade. We have seen years when the funding levels are high and we have seen years where the level of funding was considerably less generous. Throughout these times, the folks in the national fire organizations, the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI), and many individual fire people have worked hard to keep our name and story in front of the members of Congress.

Back in 2006, my best friend Jack Peltier and I took a memorable road trip to study the impact of the FIRE Act programs on the people out there around our nation. Over the course of a one month period, Jack and I traveled 6,100 miles in my GMC Suburban.

We traveled though 18 states and met with representatives from nearly 50 fire departments. We met with members of municipal, county, state, and federal legislative staffs. Jack and I saw firsthand the great things which the funding from the act had allowed to occur. Later that year, I was privileged to be part of a Congressionally-mandated study of the AFG program.

A number of us gathered in Washington to discuss where we were and what we saw as the future of the program. Let me assure you that a number of folks in the group thought that the program had peaked at that point and that it would begin to go the way of many federal programs. This is to say that they thought people would begin to take it for granted and not support it. These folks felt that it would fall out of favor and go away.

Let me assure you that a number of us have fought hard for this program. Nothing is guaranteed in the world of federal grant programs. You always have to be on guard for that hidden attack. Many times these attacks come from groups within our own camp. These types of internally-generated vendetta just irk the heck out of me. They are hard to uncover and require great amounts of effort to battle. I am still amazed that people in our own field are attempting to fight the whole array of grant programs.

Again this year, the administration wanted to cut our funding to the bone. The coalition of national organization came together and was able, with the assistance of a number of people, to make some significant improvements to the budget requests. Once again Bill Pascrell was in there pitching for us.

I am afraid that many among you do not believe, as I do, that our federal fire programs could go away in the midst of a poor economy. Let me suggest that each of you take a moment to contact your member of the U.S. House of Representatives to ask for their continued support of our efforts. The same holds true for the two Senators from your state. This effort is needed more than ever this year, given the sea of change in the composition of our Congress.

Like many of you, I will be hiking down to Washington, D.C. on April 6 and 7 to be a part of the festivities surrounding the annual CFSI Dinner. Let me assure you that I will be in the crowd keeping an eye on things. Let me also assure you of my continued personal support for the FIRE Act-based programs.

It is my intention to take an abbreviated road trip tour of the New England area this fall. My trip out West was cancelled last year owing to the serious medical situation surrounding my pal Jack Peltier. It has taken him almost 18 months, but he is back in shape and we are going to head out this fall, ably assisted by our buddy Ken McMahon from Delaware.

Let me close by reminding you that each of us has a role to play in insuring that our federal fire grant programs do not disappear in a rush to cut funding for everything. Let me urge the members of Congress to stop squabbling and start compromising. I do not care a hoot for R's, D's, I's, or tea bags. I care for the guys and gals who are rolling out each day across America to protect us all.

So remember what the federal bureaucrats told me. If we start to take these programs for granted, the will probably be taken away. Not while I can talk or pound the keys on a computer Stay with me gang.