Feds Taking Notice Of Fire Service Concerns

There have been several important developments on two issues of vital concern to the fire service: (1) preparing first responders for terrorist attacks, and (2) saving the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and National Fire Academy from sliding into oblivion. While it's mostly talk at this stage, there is a new awareness in high places that something is wrong and steps are being taken that eventually may lead to real solutions.

On the terrorism front, a Department of Defense plan to make the National Guard the lead agency in responding to terrorist attacks has run into opposition in Congress. It's unlikely to stop the Pentagon from going ahead with its program to train and equip the Guard for response to terrorism, but that is not a bad thing if the fire-rescue service finally gets the resources it desperately needs. Military units can play an important support role, but they cannot be mobilized and transported fast enough to be of any help in the first few hours when lives can still be saved.

In the months since the Guard plan was announced, more congressional leaders have been made aware that the prime responsibility for saving lives belongs to local fire departments. The fire-rescue service is the only emergency force that can respond within minutes, though most of the nation's fire departments are not any better prepared to deal with an attack than they were more than three years ago, when terrorists struck the Oklahoma City federal building and New York's World Trade Center. And, no one has the resources to cope with a massive chemical or biological attack similar to the Tokyo subway incident.

Many federal officials now understand that getting the necessary training, equipment and technology into the nation's firehouses should be top priority. The challenge is how to go about doing it without further delays. That was the message from a demonstration at the U.S. Capitol building organized by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), who has drafted a bill that would create a congressional commission to oversee the coordination and delivery of these resources to the fire service. While dozens of pieces of fire apparatus circled the Capitol grounds, members of Congress pledged their support to a crowd of several hundred firefighters. Rep. Robert Andrews (D-NJ), chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, declared: "If they're going to call you first, they should fund you first."

At the National Fire and Emergency Services dinner, Attorney General Janet Reno cited programs the Department of Justice has sponsored and told of her commitment to "strengthen the partnership" between her agency and local firefighters. Firehouse® has learned that Justice is planning a new program to provide $12 million in funds for the 120 largest jurisdictions to buy equipment needed in the response to terrorism. If it happens, it will be the first federal money designated for equipment.

All of this is to the good, but it's still a long way from solving the basic problems. This country's emergency response to terrorism is an uncoordinated tangle of bureaucracies that are fighting each other for power and money. Nothing will change until the President designates someone to step in and take charge. Unfortunately, there is no sign that the White House is paying any attention to the problem. Worse yet, the situation is being complicated by petty turf battles inside the fire-rescue service.

As we've said before, all fire chiefs can do at this point is push for their share of federal help while initiating their own plans and training to strengthen their departments' abilities to handle terrorism and other mass-casualty disasters. The only certainty is that whatever happens, firefighters will be first on the scene and bear full responsibility for saving lives.

On the other front, Director James Lee Witt, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), met with a group of fire service leaders to hear their reactions to a "white paper" that was highly critical of FEMA, USFA and the National Fire Academy. It was prepared by a group of academy staff members, who charged that the entire federal fire effort is being jeopardized by a lack of funding and weak leadership that has failed to provide firm direction or fight for its own programs.

Witt, who is genuinely concerned about the situation, encouraged ideas from the fire organizations. He outlined his plan to appoint a "blue ribbon" task force to investigate the charges and report back in six months with its findings and recommendations.

If nothing else, the white paper has caught everyone's attention and exposed widespread dissatisfaction with USFA and strong support for the academy. It also has revived the fire service's mistrust of the FEMA bureaucracy, which in the past has been reluctant to recognize the importance of firefighters as first responders. But Witt has taken a positive step in calling for a full inquiry. The big questions are whether the tasks force's recommendations will be heeded and will there be enough time to implement them before the end of the Clinton administration? Or, will it be too late to save what's left of the federal fire programs?

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