Aim Higher

On their April 8, 2008 news release titled "House Passes U.S. Fire Administration Reauthorization Bill," the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) announced that the U.S. House of representatives passed the U.S. Fire Administration Reauthorization Act (H.R. 4847). This legislation would authorize a budget of $70 million for the USFA in fiscal year 2009 to $76.5 million in fiscal year 2012. The bill is now sent to the U.S. Senate for consideration. The Senate companion bill is S. 2606, which was introduced by Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Biden (D-DE), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and Susan Collins (R-ME).

In highlighting the significance of this accomplishment, IAFC President and Chief Steven Westermann said "this is an important step in securing the future of the USFA. We look forward to ensuring final passage of this legislation this year." Recognizing that the USFA's current budget of $43.3 million for the 2008 fiscal year was proposed to be cut to only $40.9 million in the president's proposed budget for the fiscal year 2009; we should all hail the heroic efforts that all our fire service leaders have put forward to protect and support the USFA.

I believe that it is of utmost importance for us to acknowledge that many of our brightest, determined, and most dedicated fire service leaders have fought tirelessly for very many years to maintain funding for the USFA, and to establish the federal fire grant program. And their efforts should be applauded even more, once we recognize that, year after year, they still have to step up to the plate for us, and fend off the many attempts seeking reduction of the USFA's budget and elimination of the federal fire grant program. It is also immensely important to recognize the great commitment and the hard work of many of the yesteryears dedicated staff, that fought so hard in the beginning to get the USFA established and then up and running, despite all the budgetary struggles they faced year after year.

To us in the fire service, USFA is of colossal importance and its national leadership is instrumental. A historical perspective could better emphasize the significance of the USFA in addressing our country's fire problem, and should underline the importance of the fire service's commitment to the financial and organizational well-being of this institution.

After two years of extensive and in-depth analysis, one of the most important recommendations of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in their famous 1973 American Burning report was the establishment of the U.S. Fire Administration. President Ford's signing of the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974", Public Law 93-498 (PL 93-498), on October 29, 1974, was the official conception of the USFA.

In their 1973 America Burning report, the Commission mentioned that "the Federal Government must at some cost help the Nation attack the fire problem if any significant reduction in fire losses is to be achieved...This Commission believes that a reduction of 50 percent in deaths, injuries, and property losses is quite possible within the next generation. This can be attained by a declining balance reduction of 5 percent per year."

The Commission's objectives and recommendations had roots back in the 1947 President's Conference on Fire Prevention; and then afterwards, directly reflected in the various many national recommendations since, such as the 1987 America Burning Revisited, and finally the 2000 America Burning Recommissioned reports.

The Commission recommended an initial total annual budget of $125 million for the U.S. Fire Administration. They fully recognized that this was only a bare minimum, and emphasized "the projected costs in Table 19-2 can serve as indication of minimum operating program needs and as a starting point for discussion".

Yet, it seems that from the very moment of inception of the USFA, there was a big discrepancy between the federal government's words and actions when it came to supporting the newly established USFA. Simply stated, our government never "put the money where the mouth was".

In the 1987 America Burning Revisited report, the National Workshop tasked with the evaluation of the 1973 America Burning report, concluded that "while the commission had called for funding of $125 million a year, the program started off with only $6 million in 1975, jumped to $11 million in 1976 and peaked at approximately $20 million."

Historical statistics prove that since inception back in 1975 up to now, USFA has had continuous bouts for survival and chronic struggle with inadequate funding. A meager organizational existence at the very best as compared to what they were initially intended to be and what they were tasked to do.

Thanks to the internet, nowadays it is quite easy to use an inflation calculator program to estimate the current dollar value of the previous years' statistics. In doing so, one can find that the proposed $125 million budget back in 1975, calculates to around $520 million dollars today.

Again, I must admit that along with the rest of the fire service, I am elated that this year's reauthorization will provide $70 million for the USFA, which of course is 75 percent more than the proposed $40 million that the president's budget had envisioned for the USFA. But then, in comparison to the $520 million minimum budget initially intended by the 1973 Commission for the USFA, this proposed $70 million budget is only a mere 14 percent of what it should be.

The 1973 America Burning report stated "our approaches to the fire problem are not adequate to meet the needs of today. They suffer what the anthropologists call "cultural lag"; our methods of handling the fire problem are attuned to the America of yesteryear - not to contemporary needs, much less to future needs." Have we done that? Then, we have not accomplished the intended mission of the USFA as it was first outlined by the Commission in the 1973 America Burning report and signed into law in the form of the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974", Public Law 93-498 (PL 93-948), have we? I know that we have come a long way, but "are we there yet"?

If the answer is no; then we must all strive for reviving the vision of the USFA, that the two-year efforts of the National Commission concluded and depicted in their 1973 America Burning report. We must fully recognize the crucial role of the USFA in addressing the fire problem in our country. We must put all our organizational might and support behind rebuilding and strengthening the USFA to finally become capable of performing all their duties to the fullest, and assuming their predominant role as was originally envisioned by our fire service leaders of the past, some 35 years ago.

But unfortunately, USFA has been drought stricken and in financial famine for so long, that receiving even a fraction of what they truly need, is viewed as a great victory. Especially, considering that even further starvation was right around the corner and was awaiting them. And in all honesty, they are not out of the woods yet.

In her article titled "We Can Honor Fallen Firefighters By Strengthening the USFA" published in the April 2008 of the Fire Engineering magazine, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), co-chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute Caucus, stated "the USFA is a fine example of the good that can result from federal, state, and local collaboration to counter the danger of fire and to address new threats that firefighters face. I will continue to work with my Senate colleagues to reauthorize and improve this valuable component of the DHS."

Senator Collins is absolutely right. USFA is too important to our mission, and we must do a lot more to support it. We must aim higher, much higher than we have done thus far.

Back in 1948, a national military hero who was also supportive of the efforts to reduce the burden of fire on our country said "unarmed heroes cannot win the battle against fire" (General Dwight Eisenhower - 1948). President Eisenhower was correct. It is indeed not possible to win a battle without adequate resources and logistic support; and even more importantly, without having established the command, communication, and leadership structure.

We in the fire service realize the importance of USFA to our mission in reducing the fire fatalities and the life-scarring fire injuries in our communities. It is true that the number fire fatalities have dropped down to a plateau and has been lingering around 3,500 annual fatalities, but the economic devastation of fire is still quite significant.

NFPA's report title "The Total Cost of Fire in United States", published on February 2008, indicates that "for 2005, the total cost is estimated at $267-294 billion, or roughly two to two and a half percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)." Most people might not know, but based on these statistics, our current total annual cost of fire is more than twice the annual cost of the war in Iraq! Isn't it our patriotic duty to address this problem that is a burden to our economy? How could it be done without a strong and vibrant USFA at the helm?

Using an analogy to describe the important role of the USFA, let's take a philharmonic orchestra for example. They are all top musicians, and masters of their musical instruments. But, even the best of such orchestras would sound horrible if they did not have their notes, aren't on the same sheet of music, and don't have a conductor to lead them.

The USFA is that maestro for us. Even if all of us in the various fire service organizations were the very best of our trade, and were on the very same sheet of music (which most often we aren't), without an experienced conductor, we sound like a junior high football band. Irritatingly uncoordinated and out of tune; with each of us playing our own individual notes. At the very best, the song might be recognizable; but harmonious, enjoyable and pleasant to the ears, definitely not. We can, and must do much better than that.

Look at it yet another way. We in the fire service have learned to believe in a well-structured, orderly response to the emergencies, and we practice the incident command system (ICS) in responding to the incidents at the local level. Needless to say, in the ICS, the role of the incident commander (IC) is of utmost importance. Just as important though, is having a clear and concise incident action plan (IAP), and even more so, is having adequate resources to address the problem.

So, why don't we apply the ICS approach to addressing the fire problem in our country? Doesn't the magnitude of the fire problem dictate just such an approach?

Yet, it seems that to most of the politicians and the decision makers, "the trees are blocking their view of the forest". They view fire as a local issue, and not national. Therefore, they don't fully recognize and appreciate the importance of the USFA, as our incident command in addressing the national fire problem in our country. More than likely, because they were never made aware of the loss statistics, and have never fully realized the true magnitude of the annual total national cost of fire in our country.

That is a fact that we must change. So, after celebrating our small reauthorization victory, and promptly thanking the Congressional Fire Service Caucus, and our fire service leadership for all of their hard work; let's look at the fire problem with a long-range perspective, and be better prepared and aim much higher for the next reauthorization process, three years from now.

Here is my two cents. Once and for all, we need the federal government to take an independent, in-depth look at the fire problem in our country, and evaluate our performance during the past 35 years. Worst is, just like a post-incident critique, we recognize our strengths and weaknesses, and learn valuable lessons, with the hope of doing better in future, right? What do we have to lose, after all?

Let's get the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), or the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to do an independent evaluation of our efforts in implementation of the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974", Public Law 93-498 (PL 93-498). No I am not talking about an audit, or investigation. I am merely talking about an independent review.

Contrary to the audit or the investigation duties that the CBO and OMB perform (which are rather unpleasant from the organizational point of view, and in response to much serious concerns); a review is a study that is essentially done for the purpose of determining the effectiveness of an agency. The review would examine the performance of the past, with the intent to answer questions such as:

  • Has the organization been able to accomplish the expectations of the Congress?
  • Is the organization doing what the Congress intended by Public Law?
  • Has the agency been sufficiently funded?
  • Has the agency been properly managed?
  • Is the agency properly structured to accomplish its mandates?
  • Are there adequate evaluation measures in place?

Such an independent review can be extremely beneficial in helping an agency better accomplish its mission. Although reviews by their very nature must look back over time, but their outcomes are essentially future-focused.

Look at it this way. Such a review would be like an annual physical check up. Fear of finding something wrong should not be a deterrent. Instead, getting a clean bill of health, or at the least finding out what the problem might be, and then take appropriate measures to address it, before it gets out of hand, should be the real motivator, right?

So, that being said, out of sheer concern for the well-being of our beloved USFA, after the passage of 35 years, isn't time for the USFA to get just such a check up?

I think the time is perfect now to do such an independent, in-depth evaluation of the USFA, in preparation for the next reauthorization process three years from now. We have plenty of time to get ourselves ready.

Believe me, that I sincerely admire Chief Cade's leadership and his accomplishments since taking office as the U.S. Fire Administrator last year. And I hope that he serves as our country's fire chief for many more years to come. But then considering the presidential election this year, and the imminent change of the administration; more than likely, there will be a change and a period of time before the appointment of the next U.S. Fire Administrator.

That would be great timing to do this independent review. Because, then it will not be taken as a negative reflection of the USFA's current leadership. And, even more importantly, it would provide the future U.S. Fire Administrator with a valuable tool, and a much better road map clarifying the organizational missions, and hopefully providing the much needed resources to successfully accomplish the tasks. After all, without an action plan, and of course adequate resources, even the most competent of the incident commanders would undoubtedly fail. And as the incident commander for our nation, those are exactly what the USFA needs to address the fire problem in our country.

Fire service organizations working together through the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) can and should initiate the request for this independent governmental review.

We must strengthen the USFA, if we are indeed serious about addressing the fire problem in our country. Our professional obligation and our patriotic duty, demand that we acknowledge the true magnitude of the total cost of fire in our country. We need to provide our national Incident Commander with adequate resources to accomplish the tasks. If we are indeed serious about addressing the fire problem, then we can't afford being complacent and settle for the current insufficient funding levels for the USFA, believing that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". We must aim higher; much higher.

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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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