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.