Something Is Rotten At Emmitsburg

It was 25 years ago this month that a presidential commission delivered a report entitled, "America Burning," which led to creation of the U.S Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Academy. While there have been some important accomplishments in the quarter century since that historic event, there also have been bitter disappointments. And, once again, the federal fire programs appear to be threatened by another period of turmoil and uncertainty.

"America Burning" dramatically revealed this country's horrible record in fire safety and the appalling loss of life and property that came from public and governmental apathy toward the fire danger. It was meant to be a shock that would force elected officials at every level to declare war against fire with the same type of resources and determination as they did in the war against crime. Unfortunately, that never happened.

For those of us who were present at its birth, the Fire Administration never has lived up to the high expectations we had at the beginning. Perhaps we expected too much, but it has not become the aggressive, highly visible and powerful champion for fire safety that we hoped it would be. Looking back, I can see many reasons why that didn't happen. Almost every presidential administration has treated USFA like an unwanted stepchild and it rarely has had long-range stability in terms of funding or strong leadership. The low point came in the first term of the Reagan administration, when they tried to wipe it out by taking away the money.

USFA was saved by Congress, thanks to grassroots pressure generated by the Joint Council of Fire Service Organizations. This was one of those rare moments when the fire organizations put aside their differences and united in a common cause. And, it worked. At the time, many members of Congress wondered why the federal government should even be involved, since fire protection is a responsibility of local government. But whatever doubts they had, they learned that there is a fire constituency that cares. Many are still wondering, which is why USFA continues to scratch for the money it needs to keep its programs going.

It's a minor miracle that USFA has survived at all and been able to compile a list of accomplishments. They include, for example, the national smoke detector and residential sprinkler campaigns. The average annual fire death toll dropped significantly in the 1980s and state and local laws requiring smoke detectors are believed to be a major factor. USFA deserves a share of the credit for making that happen through its public education programs. But in recent years, the death toll has started up again and today's scaled-down fire programs are only a shadow of what they were intended to be. USFA remains a little-known agency with hardly any influence outside the fire service.

As for the National Fire Academy, that was meant to be the "jewel in the crown," a place where fire officers could get advanced training that was not available at the local level. It was envisioned that it would be to the fire service what the FBI Academy is to the police. It has yet to achieve that lofty goal, but it has come close despite periodic efforts to strangle it financially or absorb its programs into FEMA's Emergency Management Institute, which shares the campus at Emmitsburg, MD. I still believe the academy could fulfill its promise if it ever got the resources and funding it deserves.

However, earlier this year, the academy's program chairs presented a blistering "white paper" to the Board of Visitors, with a long list of criticism and grievances against the leadership, policies and performance of FEMA, USFA and the academy itself. It charges that constant reorganizations and budget cuts have produced chaos and placed the federal fire programs in jeopardy. FEMA and USFA are accused of failing to fight for the programs. According to sources with first-hand knowledge, many of their complaints appear to be justified, while others are questionable. But there's no doubt that something is wrong at Emmitsburg and at FEMA headquarters in Washington.

Fire Administrator Carrye Brown wrote a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges and, like the white paper itself, knowledgeable people say her answers include some reasonable explanations, along with some that are open to question. (It should be noted that back in the 1980s, Brown was a congressional staff member who helped save the USFA.) The academy's Board of Visitors has prepared its own written response to be submitted to FEMA and a board member said: "A lot of people are very concerned and want to do the right thing."

The white paper also is being taken seriously by FEMA Director James Lee Witt, who plans to appoint a "blue ribbon" panel of fire chiefs and others to investigate the issues it has raised. "We're going to look at this from the bottom to the top," Witt told Firehouse. "We're not doing our fire people a good service if any of this is true. I'm very concerned about it and I want to revisit the Fire Administration the same way we have to revisit 'America Burning.' "

Those are encouraging words and Witt has emerged in the past few years as the first FEMA director to stand up and recognize the crucial role firefighters play as the first responders in every type of disaster. I trust his word, but after 25 years of high hopes and crushing disappointments, I've also learned to cautiously wait and see with any issue that involves FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration.

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