I'm Confused

Many of us have been involved with the FIRE Act in one way or another since discussions about proposing the grant program first began. Getting the FIRE Act approved by Congress and signed by the President required the collective efforts of all the major...


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Many of us have been involved with the FIRE Act in one way or another since discussions about proposing the grant program first began. Getting the FIRE Act approved by Congress and signed by the President required the collective efforts of all the major fire service organizations, and it was well worth every bit of the work. We owe a significant amount of gratitude to our supporters in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, for without them there would not be a FIRE Act grant program.

We all remember that the original goal was to get $1 billion per year appropriated for the FIRE Act and that Congress authorized $900 million annually. The first year appropriation was $100 million, which was a good start. The second year appropriation rose to $360 million, and the most recent two years of appropriations were $750 million each year. Yet the appropriations each year have fallen way short of the amount of grants requested – almost $3 billion. So, the FIRE Act is still not able to fund two-thirds of the grants submitted for consideration.

Formally known as the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, the FIRE Act is not perfect, but it has been the most significant federal financial contribution to the nation’s fire departments in our history. It has made a difference, a positive difference throughout the country. So, why am I confused?

As I previously said, there is significant support in Congress for the FIRE Act program. However, elsewhere at the federal level, I’m not sure I can say the same with any degree of confidence. Following are a few of the things that are concerning:

  • The President’s budget proposal for next year reduces the FIRE Act funding to $500 million, a cut of one-third from the current appropriation. If Congress adhered to the President’s budget, funding for fire prevention and public education grants, as well as health and wellness and other important areas of grants, would be eliminated. Is this wise public policy?

  • I attended a White House briefing on May 5. One of the speakers was Sue Mencer, director of the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). ODP now manages the FIRE Act program. In her remarks, Mencer made it clear that ODP’s mission is terrorism, and specifically, weapons of mass destruction. Having heard her, I question what this means for the future of the FIRE Act.

    Many of us are suspicious of ODP’s agenda. If given the opportunity, would Mencer transition the FIRE Act to a terrorism-focused program and attempt to combine those funds with other ODP grant funds? Such a scenario would be consistent with the President’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2005, which proposes a greater emphasis on the program for terrorism preparedness. She said nothing at the briefing to ease our minds or eliminate our concerns.

  • It isn’t hard to see that the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is positioned within DHS in a way that minimizes its influence and authority. Congress wants a strong USFA, but the jury is still out as to whether DHS will ever allow the U.S. Fire Administrator to fill a prominent senior executive role in that organization. The fact is that the USFA’s role in DHS is minimized. The USFA is positioned poorly within DHS, and if it stays that way, the USFA will become a shadow of its former self, and that could include the National Fire Academy.

    The irony in this is that the U.S. Fire Administrator, R. David Paulison, was honored at the National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner in May for his leadership in addressing the needs of the fire service at the national level. Does DHS see Paulison in the same light as we in the fire service do? As a former fire chief who served as incident commander at two major disasters – Hurricane Andrew and the ValuJet crash – he understands our needs better than anyone within the administration. One can’t help but wonder whether the administration fully appreciates his talents in understanding the role and readiness of the fire service as it relates to large-scale disasters.

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