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It was 30 years ago that my friend Dennis Smith asked me to write a column on â€œfire politicsâ€ for a new magazine he was starting. I was skeptical on two counts: who would read a magazine called Firehouse and, second, what was there to write about for a political column that would be of special interest to firefighters? As things turned out, I was wrong on both counts. Tens of thousands of firefighters and others involved in the fire-rescue service read this magazine and, when it comes to finding topics for this column, my monthly dilemma is which one to choose from a huge platter of political issues that confront the nationâ€™s fire departments.
As a volunteer firefighter, I usually ignored the political storms that swirled around my firehouse. I was there for the action and my main interest was responding to alarms and fighting fires. However, as a professional newsman, I covered many deadly fires in which hundreds of people were killed, sometimes by the dozens, but more often by ones and twos. I came to realize that the only way to save lives on a large scale is to engineer life safety into the buildings by passing tough, retroactive fire codes that are strictly enforced. But that canâ€™t happen unless the fire service has the will and the skill to play the political game. The people who oppose stronger codes always have the money and the clout to exert their influence. They usually won because firefighters considered â€œpoliticsâ€ a dirty word and stood on the sidelines.
Thankfully, that attitude has changed and todayâ€™s fire service is heavily involved in politics, especially at the national and state levels. In 1986, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), a former volunteer fire chief, was elected to his first term and organized the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and its research arm, the Congressional Fire Services Institute. It has become one of the largest caucuses on Capitol Hill and has enabled the fire organizations to rally bipartisan support for legislation of vital interest to firefighters. For example, when Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) first proposed the idea of a billion-dollar federal aid program for local fire departments, hardly anyone (myself included) thought it had a chance of being passed. But Republicans, Democrats and all elements of the fire service pulled together to make the FIRE Act a reality. Itâ€™s only half the money originally authorized, but itâ€™s still $500 million more than nothing â€“ which is what fire departments received before the FIRE Act.
Unfortunately, at the local level â€“ where it counts the most â€“ firefighters still take a beating on too many crucial issues. Perhaps the worst political blow in these 30 years came in 1978, when California passed its infamous Proposition 13, the first of the tax-and-spending limitations that swept the country. Other states, counties and cities ignored the warnings of trouble ahead and passed their own versions of Proposition 13. Inevitably, they got caught in massive budget deficits when economic downturns reduced revenues. The politicians who caused the problem were afraid to cut spending on schools and police protection, but the fire department became an easy budget-cutting target because they could get away with it. The news media and public opinion didnâ€™t understand or didnâ€™t care and the result today is understaffed fire departments all across the worldâ€™s richest country.
When I started writing this column, the accepted staffing level for engines and ladders in most urban/suburban districts was five firefighters, with four-man crews considered to be the bare minimum. Thirty years later, many fire departments have closed stations and are running with three-member companies because of drastic budget cuts. What was once known to be substandard is now accepted as â€œnormalâ€ and it wonâ€™t change until firefighters get the media and public support needed to win political battles at the local level.