Congress Authorizes Watered-Down FIRE Act

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Against all odds, a two-year program to provide $400 million in federal aid to local fire departments was authorized in the closing days of the 106th Congress. It's a thin, watered-down version of the original FIRE Act, but it could be a start that finally establishes the principle that the federal government has a role in supporting the fire-rescue service.

However, don't start celebrating or counting the money. As this column is being written, they only had authorized the program and the bill's proponents were scrambling to get the necessary appropriations passed before Congress adjourned. If they failed, all you have is an empty bag of good intentions; if they succeeded, a minor miracle has occurred and we actually have a program with money to spend.

Officially known as "Title XVII - Assistance to Firefighters," it provides $100 million in federal matching grants for the 2001 fiscal year (which already has begun) and $300 million in 2002. The grants will be awarded on a competitive basis, with cities over 50,000 population having to match 30% of the funds requested while those under 50,000 will only be required to put up 10% of their own money. No grant can exceed $750,000.

Its stated purpose is to protect "the health and safety of the public and fire-fighting personnel" and "provide assistance for fire prevention programs." The money can be used for a wide range of activities, including the hiring of career firefighters, recruiting volunteers, emergency medical services, certifying fire inspectors, creating rapid intervention teams, hazmat training, wellness and fitness programs, public education, arson detection and prevention, modifying stations and training facilities, code enforcement and purchasing apparatus, equipment and protective clothing.

There are, however, some restrictions and quotas on how the money will be used. For example, no more than 25% of the funds can go to buy apparatus. Earmarked funds include $30 million over two years for the volunteer fire assistance program, $30 million for burn research at hospitals that operate regional burn centers, and $20 million to community organizations engaged in fire prevention and safety programs. There also is $300,000 for the National Fire Protection Association to conduct a study of how the fire-rescue service is being funded at the local level and identify where there may be shortfalls.

In addition, the bill calls for research on hepatitis C among emergency response personnel and the creation of demonstration projects to prevent and treat the disease. It also ordered studies on the feasibility of the Defense Department sharing the 138-144 megahertz radio band with public safety agencies and identifying military technology that can be used by the fire-rescue service. Finally, it authorizes the sale or donation of surplus military equipment to local fire departments.

The program will be administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency through the U.S. Fire Administration. However, staff and money will be needed to make it work and it's going to take time to put everything in place.

It has been a long, hard battle that has taken a toll in exposing raw nerves and causing bruised feelings within the fire service and among its supporters in Congress. Republicans had to defy their own leadership in pushing for aid to the firefighters and there were times when it threatened to become a partisan political fight between the Democrats and Republicans. Some proponents of the original FIRE (Fire Investment & Response Enhancement) Act, introduced by Rep. William Pascrell (D-NJ), accused the major fire organizations of not doing enough to help it along. But it was the Capitol Hill lobbyists for those organization - the chiefs, the union, the volunteers - who fought the good fight for two years and did the heavy lifting that made things happen.

It required some tricky legislative tactics and became a complicated and frustrating struggle. The original FIRE Act called for $5 billion over five years in federal aid. The Senate version, introduced by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), reduced it to $3 billion over six years. When everything seemed stalled, Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (R-MD) came up with a $100 million, one-year program that passed the House, but got sabotaged by the Senate's GOP leaders. Sen. William Roth (R-DE) also drafted a $100 million fire bill. Some members of Congress confused these bills with the $1.6 billion sought by President Clinton for the prevention of wildland fires.

Last month, Sen. John Warner (R-VA) had the FIRE Act rewritten after Dodd slipped it into the Defense Department's authorization bill and that produced Title XVII. Getting it passed required the work of a bipartisan rescue team that included Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC), Weldon - who added the hepatitis C and military assistance provisions - Hoyer and Roth, who worked hard to find ways to get the money appropriated. Once again, the fire organizations pitched in to help, as did the Congressional Fire Services Institute.

What finally came out was only a small fraction of the $5 billion proposed in the original FIRE Act. Perhaps that was unrealistic to begin with, but it started the ball rolling and there would be no Title XVII without it. In fact, you might call this "The Son of FIRE Act," a puny offspring that, in reality, will help only a small number of departments when you spread the money all over the country. It's peanuts when compared with the billions of dollars Congress eagerly gives the cops every year. Nevertheless, something is better than nothing - which is what the firefighters had before Title XVII.

It will still be nothing if Congress failed to appropriate the money. But if they did, it could set a precedent and be the start of something good. Hopefully, factions within the fire-rescue service and their friends in Congress will make peace with each other and realize that they accomplished something worthwhile by working together.


Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired 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.

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