The fire-rescue service had its first contact with the Bush administration and, for a few weeks, it felt like a swift kick in the stomach. Without warning, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) killed the FIRE Act program for the next fiscal year and a White House spokesman declared that there was no need for the federal government to aid local fire departments!
There was an immediate reaction by the fire organizations, who quickly called for help from their friends in Congress and inside the administration. Something worked. As this issue went to press, there was late word that President Bush has ordered OMB to restore $100 million of the $300 million that Congress had authorized for the 2002 grant program. It's only one-third of the loaf that had been promised to firefighters, but it's better than nothing - which is exactly what OMB had in kind.
The unexpected blow came as fire departments all over the country are applying for matching grants from the $100 million in FIRE Act funds that Congress provided for this year. Fortunately, OMB could not touch that money because it already had been appropriated; this first year of the program will is going ahead as planned. But the $300 million authorized for the 2002 fiscal year was in grave jeopardy.
What was so unfair and frustrating is that the Bush administration seemed unwilling to give the FIRE Act a chance to succeed. Without asking any questions, they arbitrarily decided that a federal program to help the nation's firefighters was not justified. Their motive was to save money in order to make the budget conform with the President's tax-cut plan. As is the case when local governments cut spending and taxes, the fire service is an easy target because the public doesn't know or care about its problems. The budget-cutters don't have to worry about public opinion and the kind of backlash they would face if they dared to cut funds for the police or the schools.
To justify their action, OMB and the White House dragged out the lame excuse that fire protection is a local responsibility. OMB's statement argued that the fire grant program "...does not represent an appropriate responsibility of the Federal Government." A White House statement agreed, saying that President Bush was "proud" of the way the nation's firefighters have carried out their mission. It cited the reduction in fire deaths and injuries, claimed that firefighter fatalities have declined 24%, and concluded that "... a permanent new program of federal grants to local fire departments has not been justified."
There's something illogical in all of this. Police and schools are the responsibility of local government, yet they receive billions of dollars in federal aid. The crime rate is going down, but the police continue to get all the help they need to keep up their good work. In his budget message, President Bush was careful to reaffirm his support for the police. Why not firefighters?
(Aside from being illogical, the White House statement was factually wrong. There has NOT been a significant decline in firefighter line-of-duty deaths, which have averaged more than 100 a year for the past 20 years, with a sharp increase in the last two years.)
They also ignored the role that firefighters play as first responders in every type of emergency. Local fire departments have to deal with problems that are national in scope, such as hazardous materials, terrorism, natural disasters and the expanding field of emergency medical services. Firefighters are constantly being asked to do more with less; they are seeking federal aid for equipment, apparatus, training, technology and personnel because so many local governments have failed in their responsibility to provide the money that's needed.
It took four years of tough trench warfare for the fire-rescue service to get the meager, two-year FIRE Act. Now, it was back to the trenches for all those who worked so hard to make it happen. OMB is powerful, but it's not the last word and the decision could be reversed - IF the fire-rescue service could find the support it needed in Congress and inside the Bush administration.
An essential first step was to "educate" OMB, the President and his senior White House staff on the many good reasons why federal aid to local fire departments is necessary and justified. The man who carried this message to the inner circle was Joe Allbaugh, the new director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who was Bush's campaign manager and chief of staff in the Texas governor's office. A delegation of congressional Republicans, led by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), quickly met with OMB Director Mitch Daniels.
Now the fire organizations have to decide whether they should gratefully accept the $100 million that OMB restored for 2002, or appeal to their friends in Congress to try for the $300 million that was authorized for the second year of the FIRE Act. Republicans and Democrats are locked in a bitter, partisan fight over taxes and the budget; the President is determined to cut taxes and reduce spending. Given that situation, trying to get the entire $300 million could be a futile suicide mission that ends up losing friends and making enemies.
As this is written, it's difficult to see where the fire-rescue service could find the support that would be necessary from the Republican or the Democratic leadership. They were willing to go to the mat to get the $100 million that OMB took away, but they've got other programs to save in this budget battle and it's doubtful that many are willing to battle for more FIRE Act money. The truth is that it is not a high-priority item with most members of Congress in either party. I'm sure there will be agitation within the fire-rescue service to fight for the whole loaf, but I'm not sure it's a realistic idea.
It's of crucial importance to make sure that this year's FIRE Act awards are an immediate success. Fire departments that receive grants must put them to work without delay. They have to show tangible results that will demonstrate to Congress and the White House that the money is being spent on worthwhile projects that really improve fire-rescue protection. Because there's only $100 million for the entire country, a lot of departments are going to be disappointed. But they have to be good soldiers and accept it without complaints. The worst thing that could happen would be the ugly spectacle of dissension and back-biting within the fire service.
The immediate challenge is to show Congress and the President that the nation's firefighters need and deserve help from the federal government and that they know how to make it work.
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.