Congress Authorizes Watered-Down FIRE Act

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...


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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.