Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

My friends, it is time to ask you all to come together in a special way. Once again it is time for me to write about the Fire Act funding levels that have been set forth for next years federal budget. Here we are, right in the middle of the 2006 grant application period, and I am calling upon you to begin the campaign to create a better understanding in Congress about the importance of the Fire Act grant funding for next year.

This is also an appropriate time to mention that the annual pilgrimage to Washington is coming up next week. The Fire Caucus dinner is being held at the Washington Hilton on Thursday evening April 6. People from around the country are coming together to celebrate who we are and what we do.

This is the time for each of us to step up to the plate and begin battling for the federal funding that has already been signed into law. We all need to focus on creating one single message for this battle. We want the Congress of the United States to fully fund the legislation that is already on the books. Forget about what we have gotten (or not gotten) and push for what we were granted by law.

Let's not fight with each other. We need to focus here. This is not a career fire service issue. This is not a volunteer fire service issue. My friends this is an issue for the entire fire service. This problem has the potential to have an impact on each and every one of you.

It bothers me that we end up having to fight for additional funding every year. However, such are the ways of the world in Washington, DC. Just when we thought that we were out of the woods and headed for greater funding and success we see a retrenchment on the part of the current administration. This bothers me and I want to do something about it.

Guess what? I really hope it bothers you too. The administration in Washington has once again determined that other things are more important than you and I are. We see money that should be headed our way moving to other places. It seems as though the needs of the rest of the world have been deemed more important than you and me.

Over the past few days I have read many different messages discussing the proposed cuts to the Fire Act Program, the non-funding of the SAFER program for fire service staffing. This is an extremely critical issue for all of us, but we cannot go at this problem with a fractured effort.

We need to stay on message and that message is the money. The message is not the bashing of the President. The message is not the bashing of Congress. The message is really quite simple. Please give us the money that you said you were going to give us. No half measures please.

Isn't it ironic that in the middle of this year's Fire Act application period we are already faced with cuts for the coming year? There is some missing logic at work here. Let me see if I can add some logic to the middle of all of this federal fiscal finagling. Let me see if I can get it straight so that you and I can understand what is happening.

Let me now attempt to speak for our government. I will try to translate their convoluted logic so that we can all agree on how best to begin our campaign to fully fund the Fire Act and SAFER program funding. Here is my translation of what I think the government is saying to us.

We (your government) love you and deeply appreciate what you do for our great nation. However we (your government) have less to give you this year. Now we (your government) want to get the word out so that far more of you can apply for the far less that is available. We want to be sure that more of you apply for the largess of the federal government that has been shrunken over time.

I am sorry my friends, but I am just a bit saddened by the need to constantly battle against those who fail to see the importance of the fire and emergency service world. It is with a great deal of personal satisfaction that I am able to reflect upon the fact that I have personally invested a great deal of time and effort into these important pieces of fire service legislation.

On more than one occasion I traveled to Washington, D.C., or Virginia to represent the International Society of Fire Service Instructors at the ad hoc summit meetings for the original battles on this issue. Our groups came together to support Congressman Pascrell of New Jersey in this critical effort.

Memories of the first actual grant program meeting at FEMA Headquarters in Washington lie riveted within my mind's eye. I can also recall the collegial gathering at the National Fire Academy where the initial criteria for the grant were created. It is with a great deal of pride that I consider the fact that at every turn in the road my associates and I fought the perception that we could operate the grant program in the way in which it has come to be known. "They" said it could not be done. However the fire service came together and did it.

The Fire Act as originally passed and signed into law allows for the appropriation of up to $1,000,000,000 in any year. It has never approached that level. I want to thank Ken La Sala of the International Association of Fire Chiefs for sending me the Fire Act appropriations for the last several years:

Fiscal Year
$ Amount (millions)
2001
$100
2002
$360
2003
$745
2004
$746
2005
$650
2006
$545

I can recall when there were those folks who felt that we had little or no chance of achieving success. What has transpired in the years since has been a great thing for the fire service. However, I would like to note that our glory years seem to be behind us. What I would also like to stress is that the dollar amounts initially proposed by the administration were smaller than what we actually received. We have had to battle each year for more.

We battled the entrenched federal bureaucracy to bring you the bounty which has come to be known as the Fire Act grants. The problems came from the upper level management people who have never really had any interest in the actual delivery of fire protection services. These people seem only to care about power and the prerogatives available at the highest levels of our federal government. Administrations come and go, but these folks remain.

A couple of years ago I wrote an article which urged our government folks in Washington to stop urinating on my leg and then providing me with a weather report indicating that rain is forecast for my neighborhood. I guess that no one was home the day that my message to them arrived.

There are those in government who begrudge the fire service its share of the pie. Sad to say, very few of us ever heard the faint scream when the baby of fire and emergency service preparedness was tossed out with the bureaucratic bathwater of the administration in Washington.

Right now our stock in the federal government is not selling at a good price. A great deal of effort is being spent on issues that only tangentially relate to what you and I do. We need to start back at the grassroots level to rebuild an awareness of our importance to the infrastructure of America within our Congress members and Senators.

Each of us has to make a call to our Congressman. Call their district office and ask to speak with the member of their staff who deals with fire-related issues. If they say that no one has that job, offer to be that person.

I am an American Firefighter my friends. My friends and I play a critical role in our society each and every day of the year. We fight fires and assist in the performance of automobile extrication. We operate fire apparatus and labor hard to save lives. We deliver babies and comfort the weary.

If the past is truly the prologue for our future, my friends you and I will continue to be first on the scene of tragedies and disasters of all sorts. We only want what we need and deserve.

Perhaps the current administration, as personified by President Bush fails to recognize that every time our funding is cut a disservice is being done to those folks who serve daily on the front lines of our nation. Perhaps no one mentioned about all of the fire personnel who have been hired under SAFER. The City of Paterson, New Jersey was able to hire more than three score new firefighters.

Perhaps no one ever mentioned to him about the great things which have been accomplished by those people who received Fire Act grant funding. My friends in the Farmingdale, New Jersey Fire Department are now all wearing new, compliant turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus thanks to that money. The funds that would have been provided for those purposes by the Borough of Farmingdale were channeled into buy a new pumper. That is what the Fire Act is all about.

Perhaps no one sent him a copy of the article on Firehouse.com which outlined the tremendous good works which we accomplished in Pennsylvania by the Assistance to Firefighters grant program. According to that story, Butler firefighters are buying a fire-prevention training robot, volunteers in Kilbuck are replacing 30-year-old breathing devices, and the Springdale Township Volunteer Fire Department No. 1 is getting new helmets, coats, pants and gloves as well as a thermal imaging camera, which lets firefighters see through smoke.

"I felt like we had just won the Super Bowl," Kilbuck Fire Chief Jeff Fink said of the federal dollars. Much of his department's equipment has been hand-me-downs from larger fire companies, he said.

Yet in spite of these great successes, which are mirrored in every state in the union, the administration insists on slashing our Fire Act money and zero-budgeting the SAFER program. It is difficult to understand their reasoning for cutting the funding of such a successful program.

My friends the actual button which connects to the true weapons of fiscal mass destruction within our world is held within the hands of our legislators. We need to convince them to throw away that button device. We need to start locally, with our own Member of Congress and then build up to a full-court press at the national level.

Perhaps the late Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill was right. All politics is local. We all need to step to the next level of political action. Maybe you and I should join hands for an assault on the system. Think about it. I know I am.

We can only succeed if we work together. We can only do this if we keep our eyes on the prize: the prize of full funding for the Fire Act and for SAFER.

See you in Washington.

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