Fire Service Could Gain With Chertoff at DHS Helm

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The nomination of Judge Michael Chertoff to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may offer a rare opportunity for the fire-rescue service to increase its influence on the gigantic agency’s decision-making process. While Chertoff has close ties to the law enforcement and legal communities, he is open to the idea that experienced fire chiefs should have more input into the formulation of DHS policies that directly affect the nation’s firefighters. If this ever happens, it could open a new era in relations between the federal government and local fire departments.

Chertoff comes into the job at a time when relations between the fire service and DHS have been sliding downhill. There is grave concern over what appears to be a downgrading of the U.S. Fire Administration and its role in the homeland security battle plan. The National Fire Academy has suffered $11 million in budget cuts, leading to curtailment of excellent courses that made it a source of pride and accomplishment for the entire fire-rescue service. Every program seems to be absorbed by the DHS bureaucracy and the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) – where people with no fire experience decide what’s best for fire departments.

President Bush’s decision to nominate Chertoff to the DHS post was one of Washington’s best-kept secrets and came as a complete surprise. After the debacle with Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner, the White House wasn’t taking any chances and thoroughly investigated Chertoff’s background to make sure there was no embarrassing information that would cause problems at his Senate confirmation hearing. In announcing the nomination, President Bush was careful to point out that Chertoff had sailed through three previous confirmation hearings for his appointments as an assistant attorney general, U.S. Attorney for New Jersey and, most recently, a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals.

At the age of 51, most of Chertoff’s experience has been with federal law enforcement. From 2001 to 2003, he headed the Justice Department’s criminal division and played a lead role in tracing the Sept. 11 attack to al Qaeda. He helped develop the controversial Patriot Act to fight terrorism and he argued the government’s case against Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been charged as a conspirator in the attack. With all of these credentials, Chertoff should fit in well with the many lawyers who transferred from Department of Justice to Homeland Security and now occupy the upper echelon of DHS – along with the ex-military and police officers, bureaucrats and politicians. Unfortunately, there are no fire chiefs up there.

But maybe it can happen. We’re told that Chertoff is an independent thinker who asks the right questions and makes up his own mind. Those who’ve worked with him say he has a unique ability to analyze and quickly get to the heart of a problem. And, he has been known to change his opinion when time and events raise some doubts. Chertoff privately has said that “firefighters will have a place with me…these are the people we turn to when lives have to be saved.” His wife, Meryl, previously worked in the Federal Emergency Management Agency and developed a great admiration and respect for firefighters. They have been contributors to their local volunteer fire department.

As this is written, no date has been set for the confirmation hearing, but it should move along fairly fast, since retiring Secretary Tom Ridge said he wanted to be out by Feb. 1 and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs already knows a lot about Chertoff. Regardless, there are sure to be some tough questions about immigration policy, the Patriot Act and civil liberties, seaport and border security, bio-chemical defense and other hot issues. And it’s quite likely that at least one senator will have questions about Chertoff’s view of the fire service and whether there will be a place somewhere in the top level of DHS for a fire chief.

It isn’t the exact title that counts. What matters is that experienced, senior fire officers should have access to the Secretary of Homeland Security and be in positions to advise him when decisions are being made that affect the fire service. Oddly enough, this has been a time when local fire departments have received more federal aid than ever before – part of it coming from FIRE Act grants and part from DHS with its billions in anti-terrorism funds. At times, it has been like a wild roller-coaster ride with drastic ups and downs. Somehow, a way has to be found to smooth the road so that DHS will understand the fire service priorities.

For openers, the fire service should let Chertoff know that he’s starting out with their full support.

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