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The 106th Congress got underway with nothing more important than the impeachment of the President of the United States as its first order of business. Once that little matter is resolved, it will tackle other problems, such as saving the Social Security system, increased spending for health care, education, national defense and the never-ending war on crime. At the same time, it will be forced to maintain a balanced budget, pass a tax cut and reduce overall spending.
With all of this, and more, on the congressional plate, it's unlikely that issues of concern to the fire-rescue service (other than terrorism) will attract much attention on Capitol Hill. Yet, to hear some of the talk and read various papers being circulated, fire leaders are being urged to flex their political muscles and make Congress pay attention - or else.
No one can explain what the "or else" means. It can't be viewed as a serious threat since most fire organizations don't have the political clout to punish a congressman who fails to support a bill they want. In the last session of Congress, one group circulated a letter threatening to let firefighters in the members' home districts know about it if they failed to support three bills that were pending. All it did was antagonize some congressmen who had long records as friends of the fire service.
Unfortunately, people are apathetic when it comes to fire problems and there rarely is much public support for fire-rescue legislation. But everyone is terrified of crime and public opinion polls show that it's a major issue with many voters - which is why elected officials are so eager to give the police anything they want. This is a fact-of-life that firefighters have to recognize and learn how to work around; the citizens are not afraid of fire and the politicians are not afraid of firefighters.
That's why some of the angry posturing that has gone on in recent months hasn't made the slightest impression in the places where it counts - the inner offices of the House and Senate. Unlike the cops, firefighters speak with many voices because they include many diverse factions that sometimes are in conflict with each other. This is not going to change and reflects the complex structure of the American fire-rescue service.
Whenever the fire-rescue service has been successful in getting a major piece of legislation passed and signed into law, it's usually because all of the factions found an issue they could agree on and pulled together. Even then, it required a lot of hard work by skilled lobbyists from the several fire organizations, who quietly operated behind the scenes, using their experience and personal contacts to line up the votes. They often have been helped by letters and phone calls that showed grassroots support from firefighters across the country and, in some cases, non-fire groups have joined in because the issue clearly was in the public interest.
Heavy-handed tactics never have worked for the fire-rescue service. Those who advocate taking a tough approach to Congress remind me of rookies who jump off the apparatus and charge into a burning building without the slightest notion of what they're getting into. Everyone takes pride in making an aggressive interior attack on a fire, but it has to be done the right way, with planning and caution by well-trained, disciplined firefighters. Otherwise it will fail and cost lives.
The same is true when it comes to legislation. There is a need for aggressive political action to get the money, resources and laws that are essential to delivering effective fire protection and emergency medical services. But like the attack on a fire, success is achieved by a careful size-up of the situation and a plan carried out by experienced people who know what they're doing. Reaching for unattainable legislative goals is a wasted effort, like trying to save a fully involved building when you should be protecting the exposures.
Which leads to the "21st Century Fire & Public Safety Act," introduced by Rep. William Pascrell (D-NJ) in the last Congress. It calls for the fire service to receive $5 billion over a period of five years to support local fire protection. Everyone agrees that more money is needed for the federal fire programs, which always have been underfunded. But the Pascrell bill also is seen by some as reaching for an unattainable goal that could divert attention and support from other fire-rescue legislation that has a realistic chance of being passed.
Those who want the 21st Century Act to be given top priority are people of integrity and good intentions; they've caused the fire service to take a fresh look at its priorities. At the same time, no one should question the integrity and intentions of the fire organizations; they have fought the good fight on Capitol Hill for many years - often with great success.
As this is written, the major fire organizations have joined in a cooperative effort to revise the original proposal and come up with a bill the fire service can agree on and that Congress would be willing to pass. It's described as "a work in progress" that will take some time and effort. And, it's sure to draw criticism from those who want to charge ahead and go for the big prize.
But now is the time to be patient and give the experienced hands a chance to plan an aggressive interior attack that will avoid being caught in a legislative backdraft.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political analyst for ABC News in Washington and served for 40 years as a volunteer firefighter.