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 setbacks along the way.
Perhaps the most important change is that the fire-rescue service has become a player in the political arena, which wasn’t true 25 years ago. It actually began in 1973, with the publication of America Burning, the report of a two-year study conducted by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. It called attention to the nation’s appalling loss of life and property in fires and described the problems facing firefighters in big cities, small towns and rural areas. The commission made a series of recommendations aimed at directing more resources, research and money at the fire problem.
While acknowledging that fire protection is primarily a local responsibility, the Commission also called for the federal government to take an active role. This led to the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Academy by an act of Congress in 1974. From the very beginning, it has been a struggle to survive. Every administration, Democrat or Republican, has failed to adequately fund the fire programs and some have treated USFA like an unwanted stepchild.
But the constant battle to save USFA from extinction brought the fire organizations together and compelled them to play the Washington political game. Despite their differences on many issues, they learned to work as a team in order to accomplish common goals. The Joint Council of Fire Organizations was formed to present a united front and reach out for support on Capitol Hill.
In 1979, the Carter administration placed USFA under the jurisdiction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Joint Council and its friends in Congress stopped the FEMA bureaucracy when it tried to downgrade the fire programs and absorb the Fire Academy into the Emergency Management Institute. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration made several attempts to kill the federal fire programs by slashing USFA’s meager budget. Each time, the fire organizations rallied grassroots support from firefighters across the country and the Joint Council worked with its congressional allies to have the money restored.
The fire service also used its new political clout to help save the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) from being dismantled by the Reagan administration at the behest of the National Rifle Association. Fire chiefs let Congress know that they needed ATF’s help in arson investigations. That same battle had to be fought again in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration threatened to eliminate ATF as part of Vice President Al Gore’s plan to “reinvent” government.
Fire service political action began to shift from defense to offense in 1987, when Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) founded the Congressional Fire Services Caucus. A former volunteer fire chief, Weldon’s goal was to make the fire community “pro-active” by building a bipartisan coalition that would support fire safety issues in Congress. The Caucus has helped pass legislation that would not have been possible 15 years ago, including the FIRE Act, the new grant program to provide federal aid to local fire departments.
While the fire-rescue service has developed its political muscles at the federal level, it has taken a beating at the hand of local government. The trouble began in 1978, when California passed its infamous Proposition 13. This was the first of the tax-and-spending limitations that swept the nation like a fever as states, counties and cities copied California’s horrible example. Elected officials zeroed in on fire department budgets as an easy place to save money without risking a public outcry.
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.