Blue Ribbon Panel Presents Master Plan For Federal Fire Programs

A hard-hitting report from the Blue Ribbon Panel to review the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has been delivered to the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and it is everything the fire-rescue service could hope for. It presents a master plan that would enable USFA and the National Fire Academy to once again carry out their original mission of reducing the nation's loss of life and property in fires by providing federal programs that aid local fire departments.

The report also is an indictment of FEMA and USFA's leadership for failing to properly fund, staff and support the fire programs. It points out that these programs never have had the money or resources that were needed and cites "a broken covenant" between the federal agencies and the fire-rescue service. In carefully measured language, the panel charges that "current leadership has not provided the level of advocacy or level of interest in fire and emergency services to justify continued support by these constituencies."

The 55-page document makes 34 recommendations that, if implemented, would re-establish priorities and provide the resources that are needed to have an impact on this country's deadly fire problem. The panel also requests that Congress and the President create a new commission to oversee an 18-month rebuilding effort that would restore confidence in FEMA and USFA and put them back on the path that began 25 years ago with "America Burning" - the original report that led to the creation of the federal fire programs.

The Blue Ribbon Panel was appointed by FEMA Director James Lee Witt in response to a "white paper" drafted by Fire Academy staff members, who warned that the fire programs were failing because of poor leadership, underfunding and a lack of direction and resources. Stephen P. Austin, of the International Associa-tion of Arson Investigators, was named chairman of the 13-member panel, which included representatives from every fire organization. Over a period of two months, they heard testimony from fire experts, examined documents and deliberated among themselves to reach a consensus and write their recommendations.

For openers, they want USFA to play a larger, more influential role within FEMA, its parent organization. More people die in fires in one week than are killed in natural disasters in an entire year and the panel calls for FEMA to give fire problems a higher priority. To accomplish this, the panel recommends moving the fire administrator's office from its present location on the Fire Academy campus in Emmitsburg, MD, to FEMA headquarters in Washington. And, they advocate changing FEMA's name to the "Fire and Emergency Management Agency."

This would serve notice on the FEMA bureaucracy that there has to be a dramatic change in attitude and emphasis. Instead of being a secondary consideration, the needs of local fire departments - who are the first responders in every type of disaster - should be of major importance in planning and funding federal emergency programs. The report declares: "The leadership and organizational culture of FEMA must change by altering its views of fire and EMS issues."

It also charges that every key element in the federal programs - fire data collection, research and technology, public education, Fire Academy training - has suffered because of "poor leadership, especially in the area of advocacy for resources." While not mentioning USFA Administrator Carrye Brown by name, the report is highly critical when it bluntly states that "effective leadership is blocked at every level of management."

The panel urges that FEMA develop a job description for future USFA administrators that includes "demonstrated professional ability in fire and rescue disciplines" along with a track record of "management and supervisory skills." It sounds like a roundabout way of saying that the federal fire program should be headed by an experienced fire chief - a logical idea that will draw approval from the fire service.

The report calls for a 50% in-crease in funding for the National Fire Academy, expanding the number of classes, restoring personnel lost to budget cuts, and possibly moving FEMA's Emergency Management Institute to another location so that more housing will be available for the Fire Academy's students. There never have been enough rooms to accommodate the number of qualified firefighters who applied for the advanced courses that are available only at the academy.

Unfortunately, there's not enough space in this column to cover all 34 recommendations. That will be done in future issues of Firehouse® and I've only hit a few of the high points. In my view, the Blue Ribbon Panel has done a superb job that deserves the thanks and support of the fire-rescue service.

Now come the crucial questions of which recommendations will be implemented and how fast FEMA Director Witt intends to act? The Blue Ribbon Panel that he appointed has given him an excellent report that offers a practical plan to immediately save what's left of the federal fire programs. And, it provides a long-range blueprint to rebuild for the future. If Witt acts boldly, the beneficiaries will be the nation's fire departments, their firefighters, and - most important - the citizens whose lives and property they protect.

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