A Quarter Century Of Change In Fire-Rescue Service Politics

Veteran political reporter Hal Bruno reviews the progress America’s fire-rescue service has made in the past 25 years.


Twenty-five years of writing the Fire Politics column is a good time to look back at some of the major events that have taken place and review what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong in the field of fire politics. There has been genuine progress, but there also have been many frustrations and...


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It has been a political disaster and had a devastating impact on fire departments across the country, with many being forced to close stations and operate understaffed companies. It spotlights the fire-rescue service’s most serious political weakness: a lack of public support. The fire organizations have become skilled in the art of politics, but they have not been able to gain public support in a way that would impress elected officials, especially at the local level – which is where all politics begins.

Looking back at the last quarter century, you can see how far the fire service has come. The USFA and National Fire Academy have survived and, for the first time in all these years, there seems to be some stability in their programs and leadership, along with a better relationship inside FEMA. Most jurisdictions now have laws requiring smoke detectors in apartments and private homes, due in part to a USFA campaign, and more high-risk buildings are protected by sprinklers. The Congressional Fire Services Caucus is working; there are new laws covering hazardous materials and firefighter heath and safety, and there finally is a federal grant program to aid fire departments.

But we also look back at too many missed opportunities. The fire death toll has been reduced, but more than 4,000 people are killed in fires and an average of 100 firefighters die in the line of duty every year. Both figures could be reduced by adopting the recommendations in America Burning, which are as good today as they were 25 years ago – but most have not been fully implemented. No administration has come close to making the kind of commitment the Commission envisioned and none has provided the funds for the USFA and the Fire Academy to reach their full potential. At the local level, fire departments are struggling to deliver the bare minimum in fire and emergency medical protection. Without the support of public opinion, they’re at the mercy of politicians whose main priorities are to cut taxes and get re-elected.

We’ve come along way in fire politics, but we still have a long way to go and America is still burning.