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There's good and bad news to report on two stories we covered a few months ago. The good news is that the federal fire programs for the 2007 fiscal year emerged from the budget-making process at about the same level of spending as this year. The embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — which was threatened with extinction in the angry aftermath of the Katrina disaster — will be strengthened and remain a part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Included in the $34.8 billion appropriated for Homeland Security is $547 million for the FIRE Act grant program, which is $2 million more than this year and twice as much as the Bush administration wanted it to be. The SAFER Act, to help local fire departments hire more firefighters, received $115 million despite being "zero budgeted" in the administration's original proposal. Once again, it was the old familiar story of Congress using its authority to override White House efforts to cut spending.
In addition to these programs, DHS was given $770 million for the Urban Area Security Initiative, which provides anti-terrorism funds for cities that are considered to be prime targets for an attack. Another $525 million went to state programs. Overall, the fire-rescue service finished the budget marathon in very good shape — thanks to its friends in the House and Senate, the hard work of the fire organizations' lobbyists on Capitol Hill and a constant education effort by the Congressional Fire Services Institute.
At one point last summer, there were proposals in Congress to dismantle FEMA, create an independent agency and start all over again. After everyone got a chance to vent their displeasure, cooler heads prevailed and the budget bill gives a beefed-up FEMA control of Homeland Security's preparedness and response activities. This is where it was supposed to be four years ago, when the original DHS organization bill got hijacked by a few powerful senators and their staffs. Homeland Security has been in a state of perpetual reorganization ever since.
In this latest configuration, the FEMA director will be raised a notch to a deputy secretary's cabinet rank. Chief R. David Paulison, who took over as director after the Katrina debacle, has been rebuilding FEMA step-by-step and holds the cabinet rank of assistant secretary. As far as the fire service is concerned, Paulison is the right man for the job. Congress tried to restrict the FEMA director's post to a person with emergency management experience, but the President refused to accept any limitation on his future choices and shot it down in his signing statement. However, Congress was successful in adding a provision that prohibits FEMA funds (including FIRE Act money) from being diverted to other programs — which did happen in the past.
On another front, the news is all bad. After 171 years, the New York Fire Insurance Patrol ceased operations at 8 A.M. on Sunday, Oct. 15, when the Board of Fire Underwriters closed the last three stations (two in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn). Founded in 1835, the New York Patrol was the first and the last of the emergency salvage corps that were financed by the insurance industry in 23 American cities. Their strategy was to respond along with the engines and ladder trucks to spread salvage covers and remove valuables before smoke and water could do their damage.
Last-ditch efforts to save the New York Patrol never had a chance once the Underwriters decided to shut it down. The City Council passed a resolution asking the Underwriters to delay the closing until the end of the year in hopes that another source of financing could be found. But all anybody seemed interested in was the three firehouses and the valuable land they sit on. It cost about $8.5 million to run the Patrol each year, which was paid for by an assessment on fire insurance premiums collected in the city. No exact figures are available, but it's estimated that the Patrol saved more than $100 million in property in a typical year. There also was talk that the Fire Department might take over, but it seemed highly unlikely in a city that already has closed down six of its own firehouses.