Major Fire-Rescue Groups Back Blue Ribbon Panel's Report

There has been a positive reaction from the fire-rescue service to the Blue Ribbon Panel report on the federal fire programs and operations of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), the National Fire Academy and their relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But it is tempered with a great deal of skepticism and uncertainty as to how many of the major recommendations are going to be implemented and how soon it will happen.

The panel was appointed by FEMA Director James Lee Witt to investigate charges made in a "white paper" drafted by a group of Fire Academy staff members. They warned that the entire federal fire program was in jeopardy because of a lack of funding and weak leadership on the part of FEMA and USFA. The Blue Ribbon Panel included representatives from 13 fire-rescue organizations and, as reported in this column last month, their blunt and highly critical report made 34 recommendations aimed at breathing new life into the moribund federal fire effort (see "The 'Blue Ribbon Panel' Working To Renew The USFA," page 28).

After accepting the report in early October, FEMA established a 30-day comment period and a web site to receive opinions from the fire service rank-and-file. As this is written, those comments are being compiled and studied by the FEMA staff. Asked when the recommendations will start being adopted, Director Witt told Firehouse®: "There are some very good and strong recommendations in the report. We have to pull the comments together and work out our implementation plan. We won't be able to implement every recommendation, but I think we can get the Fire Administration and the Fire Academy in synch with where the fire service wants to go."

All of the major fire organizations expressed general support for the report without going into an item-by-item analysis. But all seem to agree that an absolutely essential step is to upgrade the role of USFA within FEMA, so that the concerns of the fire-rescue service are heard at the top level and taken into consideration while policy is being formulated. They want the USFA administrator to be of equal rank with other FEMA deputy directors and to be a highly visible presence at FEMA headquarters in Washington.

Harold Schaitberger, executive assistant with the International Association of Fire Fighters, calls for a "fundamental restructuring" of USFA. He points out: "There has to be a deputy director representing the fire service at the FEMA cabinet level in order to have input and influence when policy is being shaped. Almost everything FEMA's involved in has a fire-rescue component and, without restructuring, this will be just another wasted exercise, another paper to gather dust on the shelf like so many previous reports."

Fred Allinson, president of the National Volunteer Fire Council, and William Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, also agree that it is essential to move the USFA administrator's office from Emmitsburg, MD, to Washington to increase visibility and influence.

"If you want Congress to pay attention, you must have an administrator who can effectively communicate the fire service's concerns and needs," Webb added.

About the only one who doesn't agree is Carrye B. Brown, the USFA administrator. In a seven-page response to the Blue Ribbon report, she termed the proposed move as "very disruptive for the USFA staff" and an idea that would seriously "divide USFA rather than bring us together."

Brown insists that she does not oppose the panel or its recommendations, but her overview of the report declares: "The conclusions could be characterized as 'shooting the messenger' because the panel did not like the message...That message has been to balance the federal budget and cut the federal bureaucracy." She believes the report omitted many facts that "would have made for a more fair and balanced review."

Obviously, the gap between Brown and the fire-rescue service is wide and deep and goes far beyond where the administrator's office should be located. Sadly, she has lost the confidence of her constituents because, in their view, she was more concerned with the Clin-ton administration's budget balancing than fighting to preserve and expand the federal fire programs.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs also supports the report, but Executive Director Garry Briese is convinced that it doesn't go far enough.

"There still are many deep problems to be addressed to create change in the fire service and determine the role of the Fire Administration and Fire Academy in doing it," Briese explains, "...if their mission is to lead, they have to look at what the fire service needs in order to move ahead."

For now, we're in a waiting period to see how much of the report is implemented and how fast it starts to happen. Will it really bring meaningful change that rehabilitates the federal fire programs? Or, will it be just one more in a series of reports that have had little or no impact? Stay tuned, because every firefighter and every fire department has a stake in the outcome.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a political analyst with ABC News in Washington and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.