Aid For Firefighters How Much? Who Gets What?

In the aftermath of September's terrorist attacks, the rush to provide federal support for the nation's firefighters resembles a cattle stampede that is splitting in all directions and threatening to run off the cliff. There's no doubt that the fire-rescue service is going to get a substantial increase in federal aid, but the chaos on Capitol Hill could cause it to fall far short of expectations.

Everyone seems to agree that local fire departments need more firefighters, more equipment and more training to deal with the threat of terrorism. But when it comes to how much money, how to provide it and who will get it, there is a wide range of conflicting views. There also has been a lot of posturing by members of Congress we never heard of, who are jumping on the "I-love-firefighters" bandwagon and proposing bills that make no sense and have no chance of being passed.

Fortunately, the fire service's reliable friends in the Congressional Fire and Emergency Services Caucus are working with major fire organizations to come up with a bipartisan legislative package that will have a realistic chance of being passed and signed by the President. Here's a summary of the proposed legislation that is under serious consideration.

1. BEEF UP THE EXISTING "ASSISTANCE TO FIREFIGHTERS GRANT PROGRAM" - This is the FIRE Act that was passed last year and succeeded in giving out $100 million in matching grants to local fire departments. It was authorized to provide $300 million in this fiscal year, but that was scaled down to only $100 million by the Bush administration and the Republican House appropriation bill. The Democratic Senate was considering $150 million.

But that was before Sept. 11. Now the fire service is asking for $600 million for this year's grants. They also want the program to be extended for five years at $1 billion a year starting in 2003. The long-term outlook is unpredictable, but they could get $300 million this year and maybe more.

2. A FEDERAL PROGRAM TO HIRE 75,000 FIREFIGHTERS - This proposal calls for $7 billion in federal funds over seven years. The federal government would pay 75% of the new firefighters' salaries and benefits for the first three years they're on the job, with local government picking it up in the fourth year. It's similar to the Clinton administration's COPS program that aimed at hiring 100,000 police officers.

It tackles the most serious problem that has been facing the American fire-rescue service for the last two decades. All across the country, fire departments are running understaffed companies due to years of irresponsible budget cutting by local government. Cities would still have to hire firefighters, but additional federal money could be used to help career departments meet the National Fire Protection Association's 1710 standard, which calls for a minimum staffing of four on engine and truck companies.

3. MAKE THE FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (FEMA) THE LEAD AGENCY TO COORDINATE THE FIRE-RESCUE RESPONSE TO TERRORISM - At this point, there is a great uncertainty as to how much power Gov. Tom Ridge and his newly created Office of Homeland Security will have or what its role will be. Presumably, its authority will include law enforcement efforts to prevent acts of terrorism as well as preparedness to respond when an incident occurs.

For years, senior fire officers involved in anti-terrorism planning have complained that the federal effort was poorly coordinated. The fire-rescue service supports the idea of the Ridge office, but wants FEMA to be directly responsible for planning and coordinating the emergency response.

There are other recommendations as well, including federal funds for more thermal imaging cameras, chemical biological masks, automated external defibrillators and additional spectrum for radio communications. The fire service also wants increased funding for specialized hazmat training and the continuation of Department of Justice training and equipment programs. But the points listed above are the big-ticket items that have top priority on the fire service's list of needs.

It is a very ambitious package, but some believe it doesn't go far enough. The Northeastern States Fire Consortium wants an immediate appropriation of $9 billion in federal funds for just this fiscal year. It would include $5 billion for the FIRE Act grants, $3.7 billion to hire more firefighters, $100 million for the National Fire Academy and $150 million for the U.S. Fire Administration.

As this is written, it's not known how much money Congress and the Bush administration are willing to appropriate for fire-rescue. Most of the funds for this fiscal year will have to come out of the $40 billion emergency spending bill that passed immediately after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. As always, there is plenty of competition from the agencies involved in the terrorism war. Tom Ridge doesn't have any budgetary power, but deciding who gets what might be a proper role for his Office of Homeland Security.

A veteran fire service lobbyist describes the avalanche of bills to help firefighters as "chaotic." Some have substance; others are off the wall, but well intentioned. Unfortunately, some are nothing more than publicity stunts by congressmen who are scrambling to be identified with the "good guys." This includes several who previously were indifferent or opposed every effort to get federal help for local fire departments. In this chaotic situation, it is essential for the fire-rescue service to present a united front and stay focused on the big issues that really count.

However, there is one important difference since Sept. 11. Before that terrible day, there wasn't much public support for the issues and problems that concerned the fire-rescue service. Now the entire country is in love with its "heroic firefighters." For the first time, there's a chance that public opinion will demand that elected officials at every level of government give the nation's fire departments the money for the manpower, equipment and training they need to do their job.

What's so very sad is that it took the deaths of 343 New York City firefighters to bring us to this point.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.