In the two years since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a lot of turmoil and a small amount of progress in getting federal aid to local fire departments. Most of the effort has focused on training, equipment and response plans, with hardly any attention being paid to the most crucial problem facing the fire-rescue service: the need for more firefighters. But a bill pending in Congress addresses that problem head-on and this time it may have a realistic chance of being passed.
Known as the SAFER Act ("Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response"), it has been kicking around Congress for several years. The original version called for $7 billion in federal grants to hire 75,000 firefighters and was modeled after the successful COPS program, which has enabled cities to hire more than 100,000 police officers. But SAFER never had the support it needed on Capitol Hill until the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, made Congress and the public more aware of firefighters and their critical role as first responders.
The Senate has passed a scaled-down version of the SAFER Act which calls for $3 billion to hire approximately 32,000 firefighters over a period of three years. The grants would pay 90% of a new firefighter's salary for the first year and then gradually be reduced until a local jurisdiction takes over the entire salary by the fourth year. SAFER funds also can be used by volunteer and combination departments to recruit volunteers and to hire one career firefighter.
On the House side, the Science Committee has approved a SAFER Act that would provide $7 billion to hire 75,000 firefighters over a period of seven years. It has to go to the full House for a vote and, if passed, the difference in the House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled by a conference committee. The major difference is whether the package will be $3 billion for three years or $7 billion for seven years. Fortunately, all of the fire organizations are united and worked together to support the SAFER Act; leaders of the chiefs, the union and the volunteers all testified in favor of the bill.
But there is opposition from the Bush administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The White House views it as a "budget buster" because they have proposed spending more that $3 billion in anti-terrorism funds to aid first responders in the next fiscal year. DHS doesn't want any first responder funding that it does not control and is not earmarked for anti-terrorism purposes. And, they want all of the grants to go for training or equipment; none of that money can be used to hire more firefighters. Philosophically, they - and some members of Congress - raise the old question of why should the federal governments provide money to hire firefighters when fire protection is a local responsibility?
The answers to these objections are obvious. Anything that improves a fire department's ability to do its daily job of saving lives and property also increases its ability to cope with an act of terrorism or any other mass-casualty disaster. Unfortunately, the DHS bureaucracy seems unable to accept that simple truth; in their view, everything has to have an "anti-terrorism" label. But what good are plans and equipment if you don't have enough firefighters to make them work? Thousands of lives were saved at the World Trade Center because the Fire Department of New York was able to assemble the manpower that was needed to rescue victims while they were still alive and reachable.
The challenge facing most fire departments is how many firefighters they can get to the scene while there is still time to save lives. Many were under-staffed long before 9/11 and the situation is worse today because of local government budget cuts brought on by the bad economy. As for fire protection being a local responsibility, well, so are education and law enforcement. But that hasn't stopped the federal government from giving billions of dollars to school systems and police departments over a period of many years. Why is fire any different?
Not surprisingly, there also has been opposition from some mayors, city managers and county executives who don't like the idea of paying additional firefighter salaries when the SAFER funds are phased out after three years. These are the same officials who are responsible for the sad state of so many fire departments because of the budget cuts and manpower reductions they have inflicted. Their policies caused the problem and are the reason why fire departments desperately need federal help.
But even if the SAFER Act passes, it's not a cure-all for the staffing crisis. It can provide some relief, but the problem will not be solved until local government is forced to meet its responsibilities. Hopefully, there are signs of change; in recent months, a few city and county councils have rejected budget cuts that would have had a drastic impact on their fire departments. If that starts to happen in more places, then maybe something good will have come out of the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. In the meantime, the SAFER Act is like a life line for struggling fire departments.
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.