A New Set Of Teeth For Hotel-Motel Fire Safety Act

Progress is being made to restore the enforcement provisions of the Hotel-Motel Fire Safety Act, which accidentally had its teeth knocked out during the final days of the 104th Congress. In this current session, both the House and Senate have passed new legislation to undo the damage and revive the law that requires federal government employees to stay only in facilities protected by sprinkler systems while traveling on official business.

The original act was intended to safeguard federal workers and to encourage hotel and motel operators to install sprinklers in order to get their share of this lucrative government business. It amounts to more than $1 billion a year, and 17,300 hotels and motels had qualified for the approved list. In effect, the entire traveling public was being protected because of fire safety improvements made to overnight lodgings all across the country which is exactly what the act's proponents had in mind when they passed it in 1990 after a series of multi-death hotel fires.

Unfortunately, in the chaotic closing days of the last Congress, a little-noticed Department of Defense reauthorization bill eliminated the act's enforcement provisions. The Defense Department had complained about the bureaucratic red tape involved in reporting compliance to the General Accounting Office. (A Pentagon spokesman insisted that they did not intend to wipe out the fire safety act.) However, with no auditing or reporting requirements, there was no way of enforcing the law and for all practical purposes it was dead. The fire service and the act's original sponsors were furious when they belatedly learned what had happened and immediately promised to restore the act's enforcement power in the new Congress.

They've made good on that promise, but there are some minor differences between the House and Senate versions. A conference committee was scheduled to meet last month to work out compromise language that would require every federal agency to have a travel management center operating within five years. These travel centers will be mandated to book reservations only in facilities that have sprinklers and are on the approved list maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and compiled by the U.S. Fire Administration.

As this is written, it looks as if the Hotel-Motel Fire Safety Act will have a new set of teeth and, hopefully, America will be a safer place to travel. Once again, the Congressional Fire Services Caucus rode to the rescue.

Things have not gone as well for most other fire-rescue legislation in this first session of the 105th Congress. As we forecast in last April's column, there has been a great deal of partisan squabbling, though they did manage to pass the controversial budget bill signed by President Clinton. This touched off some bitter infighting among the Republicans, with a band of hard-line conservatives attempting a palace coup to oust Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House. It failed and they ended up looking like a political version of the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

As part of the budget deal, commercial broadcasters won the first battle over Spectrum reallocation. The fire-rescue service wanted channels 60-69 to be reserved for public safety use. Under the agreement, they won't get access to those channels in markets where a station already has received an allocation, which protects about 90 stations. The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee's report had recommended that 24 megahertz be set aside for immediate use by fire and police and another 70 reallocated by the year 2010. While the public safety forces could claim a partial victory, what they got was far short of what they wanted and this controversy will continue.

The Volunteer Firefighter & Rescue Squad Worker Protection Act appears to be mired in committees and subcommittees and not going anywhere at this time. This is aimed at revising the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) so that career firefighters can serve on their home volunteer companies while off duty provided they are not being coerced into working without pay. Many career firefighters have come from the volunteer ranks and remained active in the companies where they started, until the Department of Labor cited it as an FLSA violation.

The International Association of Fire Fighters is opposed to this practice and fighting any revision of FLSA. Meanwhile, a separate bill has been introduced that would allow any state or local government employee to do volunteer work within the agency that employs them, as long as it's not ordered by management. This sent off rockets because it's exactly what organized labor was afraid of and probably makes it more difficult to get an FLSA exemption for firefighters. Instead of being just a fire service controversy, it now involves the entire labor movement and a much broader range of government agencies.

There are other important fire-rescue bills pending in Congress, but given the undisciplined, feisty mood on Capitol Hill, don't look for much to happen between now and the end of the year. Almost everything will be stalled in committees until the House and Senate come back in January for the 105th's second session. However, that's the session leading into the 1998 midterm election campaign and the partisan fever will only intensify. Unless there is strong grass-roots support for a bill, it won't have much chance of passage. If any fire organization wants a specific piece of legislation from this Congress, they better know how to generate some support and political pressure from the voters back home.

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