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However, there will be some kind of language in the final bill that gives USFA a prominent role in administering the program and the grants will continue to go directly to local fire departments. These are crucial points. More than $1.7 billion in FIRE Act funds have been awarded in the past four years and the program is successful because it has been managed fairly and efficiently by USFA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In contrast, Homeland Security’s anti-terrorism aid to first responders has been a bureaucratic nightmare as it slowly trickles down from Washington to state governments, where it’s divided between fire, police and emergency medical services before being distributed to the local level.
There are still powerful forces in Congress and the administration that don’t like the FIRE Act and would kill it if they could. Fortunately, the fire service organizations have people on Capitol Hill who are skilled lobbyists and know how to play the game. They’ve had strong bipartisan support from the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, whose leaders appealed to the President to restore full funding for the program and move it back to USFA. When that failed, they added more money on their own and it’s safe to say there would be no FIRE Act grants if it weren’t for the clout that comes from 320 members of the fire caucus.
The FIRE Act may be small potatoes when compared with the $4 billion DHS will have available for first responders in fiscal 2005 or the billions of dollars in federal aid the police receive every year. And, it may not be everything the fire service wants it to be, but it’s a lot better than nothing – which is what firefighters had four years ago.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.