In a most welcome and unexpected action, President Clinton has created a Presidential Medal of Valor for Public Safety Officers that will include firefighters and emergency responders as well as police and other law enforcement personnel. The executive order issued last month calls for a maximum of 10 medals to be presented each year to those who have shown "extraordinary valor above and beyond the call of duty."
The selection process will be administered by the Department of Justice, with the Attorney General submitting recommendations to the President, who will make the final decision. Those eligible to receive the medal are defined as persons serving "with or without compensation" - which means volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel are included. Starting next year, the medals and certificates are to be presented on May 15, which will be designated as "Peace Officers Memorial Day" as a part of national "Police Week."
While the fire-rescue service is grateful to the President for establishing this new honor, there is some concern over the tie-in with Police Week. Recognition of the medal-winning firefighters could be overshadowed if it's part of something that is predominantly a police event. One suggestion is to have a separate award ceremony for fire-rescue personnel during Fire Prevention Week in October, perhaps at the White House, where it would draw maximum public attention. Officials of the U.S. Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are discussing this possibility with administration officials.
I've always been a strong believer in the value of awards that honor firefighters for acts of heroism and other outstanding achievements. It's good for morale within a department and it reminds the citizens that firefighters need and deserve their support. Anything that puts a positive spotlight on firefighters helps the fire-rescue service. As pointed out in last month's column, a major obstacle in trying to get legislation through Congress has been the lack of public support on issues that concern firefighters. And, the same has been true at the state and local levels. A medal awarded by the President of the United States will help call attention to the dangerous and difficult challenges firefighters face every day.
At times, this column has been critical of the Clinton administration for failing to support the fire-rescue service, but we owe a sincere "thank you" to the President and the unknown person who came up with the idea of establishing a national medal of valor. (I'll let you know when I find out who it was.)
Another piece of good news is that the Senate passed the House version of the Volunteer Fire Assistance Program, which will provide $5 million in federal matching grants to fire departments serving communities with a population under 10,000. The funds can be used for training programs, equipment and protective clothing for small departments who have limited resources and desperately need any money they can get. I recently heard from a rural fire company who can't afford to buy turnout gear or breathing apparatus for its firefighters!
The National Volunteer Fire Council worked hard on this one and tried to get a $10 million program. (Every year there are applications for more than $20 million in grants.) The administration had cut it down to only $2.5 million, so getting $5 million is a victory. However, when divided among 50 states, it's only $100,000 per state and the volunteer fire departments have to come up with a dollar of their own money for every dollar they receive.
Still, something is better than nothing and there's confusion from another congressional front. Before adjourning for its summer recess, the Senate passed an $11.2 billion emergency spending bill, knocking about a billion dollars out of the version that was passed by the House. And, as we feared would happen, $100 million in federal matching funds for local fire departments was lost in a fast shuffle. The House had approved the one-year program as a substitute for the Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement (FIRE) Act, which proposed grants of $1 billion a year for five years and wound up being buried in the House Science committee.
The emergency spending bill was primarily intended to appropriate more money for big-ticket items like disaster relief, the military mission in Kosovo and funds to fight the drug war in Latin America. But it came out of the House dripping with pork and the Senate killed some of the measures it didn't like - including the $100 million in fire grants - then reached into its own pork barrel to provide "emergency" funding for pet projects favored by its most powerful members. Unfortunately, aid to the nation's fire departments is not on their most-favored list; the firefighters didn't get a penny.
However, in another maneuver last month, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT) attached a revised version of the FIRE Act as an amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill. It calls for $3.1 billion to be spread out over a period of six years - which is one more year and almost $2 billion less than the legislation proposed by Rep. William Pascrell (D-NJ) in the original FIRE Act.
The Dodd amendment also requires that 10% of the funds be earmarked for fire prevention activities conducted by community organizations that focus on preventing injuries to children. It means that $300 million in fire money would go to groups like the SAFE KIDS campaign - which has been a pet project of Dodd and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH), the only Republican to co-sponsor the amendment.
The Senate's bill now goes to a conference committee, where it has to be reconciled with the Defense appropriations bill previously passed by the House, which did not contain any money to help local fire departments. Its chances there are very uncertain.
But one thing is certain: the fire-rescue service won't have any trouble coming up with the names of firefighters who deserve to be considered for the Presidential Medal of Valor.
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.