As the final months of the 106th Congress come into view, bills aimed at bringing federal aid to the nation's fire departments are slowly sinking into a pit of legislative quicksand. The situation reveals two glaring weaknesses that have handicapped the fire-rescue service from the start: (1) a lack of public support, and (2) a lack of data to show why they need the money. These are the same tools fire chiefs have done without in losing budget battles at the local level.
The outlook for action on the fire legislation is grim as members of Congress adjourn for their long summer recess and to attend the national political conventions. When they come back in September, there will be only a few weeks of work before they go home for their own election campaigns. With all of the crucial, unfinished business that is still pending, the fire bills will continue to have low priority and little chance of being passed before this Congress becomes history.
The Firefighter Investment and Response Act (FIRE Act) - which proposed $5 billion in federal aid to fire departments over a period of five years - remains buried in the House Science committee with no hope of getting a hearing on its own merits. It had bipartisan support with 270 co-sponsors, but the House Republican leadership doesn't want to pass a spending bill of this size and feels no pressure from public opinion to come to the aid of local fire departments.
However, they did throw a bone to the firefighters by signing off on a program calling for $100 million in federal grants for fire departments in the next fiscal year. It was drafted by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and passed the House as part of a $12.7 billion emergency appropriation bill. But it has run into trouble in the Senate, where some GOP leaders don't like the idea of any emergency spending. Sen. William Roth (R-DE) is considering the idea of switching the fire money to some other appropriation bill; but then it would have to go back to the House for approval, where they don't want the fire grants added to bills they've already passed.
The hope for some sort of federal aid has not been pronounced dead, but as one congressional lobbyist describes the situation, "it's on life support." This is especially frustrating since all of the fire organizations teamed up to wage a valiant fight. They went flat out in their lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill and rallied grassroots support from fire chiefs and firefighters all across the country. Many of you made the phone calls, wrote the letters, sent the e-mails and showed up in impressive numbers to work on your state's congressional offices when you visited Washington.
But the fire service does not have the active support of public opinion or the data to show how desperately local fire departments need federal aid. Without those two ingredients, it became exceedingly difficult to pass any legislation that called for billion-dollar spending. If this had been an anti-crime bill to aid police departments, it would have sailed through the House and Senate with little trouble. It also would have drawn strong support from the White House, but the Clinton administration only gave the FIRE Act a mild and meaningless endorsement late in the game, and offered $25 million in grants for departments in rural and low-income communities.
Members of Congress know that crime is an issue of concern to every voter, which is why they eagerly provide $7 billion a year for programs to help local police. No politician ever wants to be accused of being "soft on crime" and the cops have all those juicy FBI statistics to support their annual pitch for federal money - whether the crime rate goes up or down. In contrast, no one has ever heard of a candidate drawing criticism for being "soft on fire." While many people live in fear of crime, the public is apathetic when it comes to fire and there are no statistics to show how badly fire departments have been crippled by local government's budget cuts.
There should be no recriminations within the fire service for this year's disappointments; everyone involved did the best they could. But there are important lessons to be learned - starting with the need to gather statistics that will convince the public and the politicians that fire departments truly need federal help. Unfortunately, the fire service has been grossly negligent in providing the reports that might produce the data. That has to change.
Secondly, the fire-rescue service has to embark on an aggressive campaign to mobilize public support. Opinion polls show that people admire and trust firefighters more than any other group; the problem is that they're taken for granted. It's time to exploit that favorable image and make people aware of the role that firefighters play in protecting their lives and property in every type of crisis - from fires, accidents and medical emergencies to natural and man-made disasters. We have to make them "fire conscious." Instead of suffering in silence, fire departments have to make the public aware of the problems and dangers they face when elected officials impose drastic budget cuts.
If the fire service can rally public support, its legislative action will have a chance to succeed when a new Congress and a new President take over next year. Congressional leaders would not dare to bury the fire bills in committees if public opinion demands that they provide federal funds to aid fire departments. And, if local officials knew they would face the wrath of angry voters for lowering the level of fire-rescue protection, it might not be necessary for firefighters to plead with Congress for help.
Here's a brief update in the on-going saga of the District of Columbia's abused and battered fire department. Augusta, GA, Chief Ronnie Few has been named to head the DCFD and, as promised in last month's column, I asked why anyone would take the job. His reply: "It's an opportunity to come to a department that has faced problems, but is rich in tradition in a great city ... I like challenges, there's no doubt about that."
There's no doubt that he faces a formidable challenge in Washington. Few will be the city's fifth fire chief in 10 years and we wish him all the good luck he's going to need.
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.