Even More Important Now

We must be unified in our stance and focus all our efforts on reviving the AFG program.

My past few articles have been focused extensively on the issues of public education and advocacy. Educating the public and our elected officials about the menace of fire has been on the top of our "to do list" going back even further than the 1947 President Truman's Conference on Fire Prevention.

The well-known 1973 America Burning Report aimed at educating our public and our decision-makers and explained their goal as "We have become accustomed to public indifference to the fire problem. But we hold the hope that this attitude can be changed. It is our wish that this report will provide a turning point, by reaching - if only indirectly the conscience of millions of Americans."

But then societal change does not come easy, and it is a long term effort. Time, and even more importantly, systematic, sustained educational effort is needed to bring about the cultural change. And of course that means resources and funding; lack of which contributed to our failure in accomplishing the goals laid out in the 1973 America Burning Report.

Fourteen years later, the 1987 America Burning Revisited report stated "Failing to convince elected officials of the seriousness of the fire death, injury and loss statistics was considered the most serious problem because it is the path to resolving many other problems."

Then 13 years later, back in 2000, the America Burning Recommissioned Report stated "The lack of substantial funding to implement America Burning speaks volumes about the low priority that all segments of government - federal, state and local - assign the fire hazard compared to other areas of public safety."

Think about it. There must be some strong merits to this idea of educating the public and our elected officials, and increasing our advocacy at all levels of government. Otherwise, it wouldn't have been repeated time after time for the past few decades in all these reports prepared by the fire service leaders of the past, would it?

I guess it must be easier said than done, considering that after decades, we still have not conquered that public indifference. The elected officials are still not "convinced" about the seriousness of fire problem.

And if you ask yourself why, you might come to the same conclusion as I. The problem is that other than an exceptional few, most of us don't really believe in the solutions ourselves. Or, even if we do, we are not truly committed to it.

In the book The Leadership Challenge, it is stated "There's absolutely no way that you can convince others, over the long term, to share a dream if you're not convinced of it yourself. You must be sincere in your own belief." Are you? Simply stated, most of us don't "walk the talk," as we should.

Obviously knowing the problem and the reasons why we have not effectively addressed it is of utmost importance. But then, that is only a part of the solution. Even more important than the why, is the how. How can we address the problem? What do we need to do? These are the key questions to be answered. To me, answering the how; is truly essential in providing us ways to address the problem.

That being said, I believe that it is quite valuable to share the wisdom and experiences of those fire service leaders who have focused on how to address the problem. Leaders who not only have the vision, but throughout their fire service career, have also displayed their strong commitment to the advocacy and educating the public and the elected officials.

Two such leaders are my friends, Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Robert Doke and retired Needham, MA, Fire Chief Bob DiPoli, who is a former President of the International Fire Chiefs Association. Both contributed extensively in writing this joint article that showcases their successful advocacy and lobbying efforts in educating their states' top elected officials.

Robert Doke started the Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Ambassador program seven years ago. He believes that the prevention side of the USFA has suffered financial difficulties over the years. That being the case, his office took a "what can we do for the USFA" approach, in advocacy for the financial stability of the USFA, and its role at the leadership of our country's fire service.

In his own words, Robert explains:

"The Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Ambassador group has traveled to Washington D.C. every September since 2002. The first purpose of the group is to acquaint accompanying elected officials and community emergency first responders with the challenges that emergency first-responders face at home in Oklahoma. The second purpose is to acquire information of various opportunities for federal funding and other special programs.

This government-to-government link opens the door to funding opportunities for the Oklahoma fire service. This mission helps us boost the fire service in Oklahoma and that means additional grant opportunities to our local fire departments. The Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Ambassador group seeks to cultivate allies and relationships in the development of Oklahoma fire departments each September.

Oklahoma fire departments reap a number of benefits from our discussions in Washington D.C. By participating in substantive economic talks with top-ranking government officials, we are able to build the kind of relationships that are essential to effective economic development.

The meetings are of great importance to the State of Oklahoma in the form of acquisition of new technology and grants, allowing "Emergency First Responder" techniques and capabilities in Oklahoma to keep pace with the changing social atmosphere and demands on firefighters and their departments.

The group (35 to 40 Oklahomans) consists of: the Lieutenant Governor, Governor's Cabinet Secretary of Security and Public Safety, select members of the State Senate and select members of the House of Representatives, fire officials representing several organizations such as: IAFF, IAFC, NASFM, IFSTA, IFMA, Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Commission, Emergency Managers, EMS representatives, fire and EMS instructors, fire retirees and law enforcement.

The Oklahoma delegation meets with the U.S. Senators and Representatives on the Capitol Hill, Director of FEMA, U.S. Fire Administration, National Fire Academy-Superintendent, AFG Grants Director, Director of the Emergency Management Institute, terrorism experts representing the FBI, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Staff of the Office of the Joint Director of Military Support at the Pentagon, General Services Administration, specialist in the disciplines of training, public fire education, instructional systems and fire programs.

The Oklahoma State Fire Marshal Ambassador group has covered a tremendous amount of topics while meeting with numerous agencies and organizations during the past six years in requesting support for our Nation's Fire Service. Two topics that are always addressed each year since 2002 are Interoperable Communications, and the burden of federally non-funded mandates on the fire service.

Last year, two topics of request for federal support were continued financial support for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG), and continued financial support for the USFA and the National Fire Academy (NFA).

The primary goal of the Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) is to meet the firefighting and emergency response needs of fire departments and nonaffiliated emergency medical services organizations.

Since 2001, AFG has helped firefighters and other first responders to obtain critically needed equipment, protective gear, emergency vehicles, training, and other resources needed to protect the public and emergency personnel from fire and related hazards. Since 2001, AFG has awarded over 40,000 grants to local fire departments with a federal share of over $4 billion.

The Grant Programs Directorate in the Federal Emergency Management Agency administers the grants in cooperation with the U.S. Fire Administration. At the start of federal fiscal year 2005, Congress reauthorized the Assistance to Firefighters Grants for an additional 5 years through FY 2009.

From 2001 through August of 2008 Oklahoma fire departments and nonaffiliated emergency medical service organizations have received over $58 million through nearly 850 grants. These funds have provided critically needed equipment, training and personnel to provide the protection and safety that both our citizens and our first responders deserve.

Continuous support for the USFA and NFA is of utmost importance. The USFA is America's fire and emergency services leader. The 1974 Public Law 93-498 stated "the purpose of the Academy shall be to advance the professional development of fire service personnel and of other persons engaged in fire prevention and control activities". The NFA is mission focused in the training of current and future emergency first responders to foster a solid foundation for local fire and emergency services' prevention, preparedness and response to fires and all-hazards. This type of training assures a smooth integration with State or Federal organizations in times of disaster."

DiPoli has very similar views and for the past few years has focused extensively on educating the elected official in his State.

Under Bob's leadership back in 2002, the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts (FCAM) started a tradition of going to Washington D.C. during the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI) events to meet with their members of Congress and US Senators.

Bob explains "originally I planned a luncheon event. It was attended by both of our US Senators and all of the 10 Congressmen. We had 68 chiefs attended as well. It was a great success. In the evening, we attended the CFSI Dinner as a group and still remain the largest contingent of chiefs of departments from any state attending the dinner.

In 2003, we had about 100 in attendance. We changed to a breakfast in 2006 as we found there were several conflicts with roll call votes etc. at lunch time. We present a national legislative agenda to the Massachusetts delegation, and then meet with the individual members and the chiefs to discuss the state and local issues. In addition, FACM has visited wounded members of the Military Walter Reed Hospital and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington Cemetery as part of our visit."

With the current economic challenges that our country is battling, and with the budget cuts that the fire service is facing all across the land, today it is even more important than ever before for us all, to intensify our efforts to better educate our public about the menace of fire.

Look at it this way; just like salesmen need to work harder to make the sales during the tough economic times, we must work harder to sell fire prevention. When the economy is good and there is plenty of money to go around, there is not as much competition for the market. Jobs and sales come around effortlessly and everyone gets their share of the pie.

But, when the economy is bad (like for example now); it is a "dog-eat-dog world" out there. The resources are scarce and infrequent to come about. During these times, a good salesman must make cold-calls; pound the streets and work really hard for long hours just to keep the trickling flow of income. Scarcity of resources demands that. And, at these times, the past connections made, can come in very handy; and continuous lobbying is even more important.

Bob recognizes the importance of strong advocacy and effective lobbying; especially during these challenging economic times. He knows that it is very important for us to keep up our lobbying efforts and fight for the desperately needed resources such as the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) and the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG).

Back in the March 15, 2009 issue of the IAFC's On Scene, in an article titled "Effective Lobbying on a Tight Budget" Chief DiPoli stated:

"Early in my career as fire chief, I learned that nothing comes our way without some effort. I was privileged to be elected to lead my state chiefs' organization in the early 90s. At that time, the fire service in my home state as well as nationally was largely under-recognized and under-funded.

As leaders, we rolled up our sleeves and began to advocate for our profession at the State House. Utilizing grassroots lobbying, testimony at public hearings and visibility at fundraisers and events held for politicians, we soon began to tally our successes.

I ran for IAFC leadership during the '90s and again in 2002 on a platform that we at the national level could be even more successful and achieve our goals and objectives. As vice president of the IAFC, I led a large delegation of fire chiefs from my home state to Washington to meet with our U.S. senators and congressional representatives during the Congressional Fire Service Day that spring.

As I progressed through the chairs to IAFC president, I encouraged the other 49 states to follow our lead in Massachusetts. We saw record numbers of chiefs wearing their class-A uniforms walking the halls in Congress and we achieved unprecedented success with funding and visibility.

Sadly, many communities are feeling the pinch all across America as we suffer a recession. Fire chiefs' travel budgets are coming under intense scrutiny and in some cases are drying up altogether. How can we maintain our relationships in Washington, while staying close to home and living within our budgets?

I offer the following suggestions:

  • Be an active and informed member of the IAFC. You need to keep abreast of the news alerts and calls for action on pending legislation.

Hopefully better days are ahead for us. When your budgets permit, make your reservations to travel to the nation's capital and join us in our efforts to keep the fire and emergency services first and foremost on the minds of our federal elected and appointed officials."

Budgeting is simply all about the distribution of the scarce resources. And, as we feel the current economic pinch, we realize that the resources are even scarcer now and they are depleting rather rapidly. It is also evident that the competition for that little piece of the pie is quite fierce.

The President's budget request for next year does not look too promising for the fire service. Although the proposed funding for the SAFER grant program indicates an increase from $210 million to $420 million, it also proposes reducing funding for the AFG program from $565 million to $170 million.

Continuation of the federal fire grant programs is of utmost importance for us in the fire service. Many of our brightest, determined, and most dedicated fire service leaders fought tirelessly for very many years to establish these federal fire grant programs. And, year after year, they stepped up to the plate and fended off the many opponents seeking elimination of those grants. As a direct result of their continued advocacy and lobbying efforts, many of the under-resourced fire departments around our country have received the desperately needed grants to protect their communities.

Last year for example, there were more than 21,000 fire departments that applied for approximately $3.2 billion in AFG, and just over 1,300 departments applied for $600 million through SAFER. This huge demand is indicative that although the federal fire grants are a far cry from systematic sustained funding, that fire service needs to improve our service delivery; still we definitely need this continued governmental support to be able to better protect our local communities.

My friends, times are tough and our hands our tied. Despite that, we must intensify our lobbying efforts and further increase our public education and advocacy at all levels of government. Write your congressional delegation today (see attached CFSI letters). Send e-mails to the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee Honorable David Price; the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee Honorable Harold Rogers; the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee Honorable Robert C. Byrd; and the Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Honorable George V. Voinovich and ask them to restore the AFG to its FY09 funding level of $565 million.

We must be unified in our stance and focus all our efforts on reviving the AFG program. Believe you me; it is even more important now than ever before.

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AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.

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