For Fire-Rescue Service, A Time For Vigilance

The outlook for fire service legislation in the new Congress can best be described as "challenging" and "uncertain." In fact, that description applies to just about everything in Washington these days; the only certainty is that there will be bitter fighting between the Democrats, Republicans and the White House on almost every issue. It already has started and, in this poisonous political atmosphere, the fire organizations will have to be unified and willing to agree on a clear set of priorities if they are to have any hope of achieving a few of their most important goals.

Many factors have combined to create this situation, the most important being partisan politics and the nation's ailing economy. As a result of last November's midterm election, the defeated Democrats are turning back to their free-spending, liberal roots while the victorious Republicans - who now control both houses of Congress and the White House - are more determined to push a tight-fisted, conservative agenda that supports President Bush's goal of cutting taxes while holding down spending. Furthermore, this Congress will end with the 2004 presidential election, which means that every skirmish on every issue has an extra political spin and potential impact. Finally, hanging over everything like a dark cloud is the possibility of war with Iraq.

The first battleground is the unfinished business left behind by the previous Congress, which adjourned without passing a budget for the current fiscal year. Now it's up to the new Congress to complete that difficult job. For the fire-rescue service, the crucial question is whether the FIRE Act - which provides direct matching grants to local fire departments - will be funded at the $900 million recommended by last year's Democratic Senate or the $450 million approved by the Republican House? With the change in Senate control, it's a new ball game and there's little chance that the GOP leadership will accept the higher figure. It's more likely that the FIRE Act appropriation will be closer to the House's $450 million and a veteran fire service lobbyist points out, "Anything over that would be pure gravy."

The next battle - and the one that should be top priority for the fire-rescue service - is to make sure that the FIRE Act survives as a separate program in the 2004 budget. For each of the last two years, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has tried to kill the program and it will be interesting to see if it gets its own line item or, once again, is deliberately left out of the proposed budget. Fortunately, the program has been highly successful, gaining bipartisan support from both sides of the aisle and even inside the Bush administration. But there seems to be an annual ritual in which OMB wipes it out and the fire organizations have to mount a frantic rescue effort to get Congress to restore it.

The great danger is a behind-the-scenes effort to fold the FIRE Act into the funding proposed for first responders in the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Secretary Tom Ridge has stated publicly and privately that he wants the FIRE Act to remain a separate program, with its own budget appropriation continuing to be administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is now part of DHS. This is what the fire service and its friends in Congress want. But strange and unexpected things have a way of happening on Capitol Hill and the fire service has to be alert for any sign of a back-room plot that would undo the years of hard work that went into making the FIRE Act a reality.

As in the past, there has to be a massive grass roots effort on the part of firefighters and their leaders to let members of Congress know how important the FIRE Act is to their department and why it must be maintained as a separate grant program, with the full $900 million funding that was authorized for 2004. What's needed are letters, e-mails, phone calls and, whenever possible, one-on-one meetings between fire chiefs and their House and Senate members. There's still a lot of good will toward firefighters in the aftermath of 9/11 and this opportunity should be exploited to preserve a program that is providing federal aid to local fire departments.

The proof of how popular firefighters have become can be seen in the amazing number of bills that have been introduced to assist first responders. It seems as if every member of Congress wants to have his or her own bill in the hopper. Some are well-intentioned and deserve support, but many are ill-conceived grandstand plays that had no input from the fire-rescue service and have no chance of being passed. Their purpose is to generate a press release so that a congressman can get some publicity back home by showing how much he loves his local firefighters. Don't be diverted by this ploy; thank him for his help, but keep him focused on the importance of full funding for the FIRE Act.

As for that much anticipated $3.5 billion in aid to first responders that is supposed to come from Homeland Security, don't hold your breath waiting for it and don't let it take attention or money away from the FIRE Act. Some day in the distant future, when DHS is up and running, it may come trickling down to the firehouse. But for now, it's merely a promise - like the proverbial birds in the bush. In contrast, the FIRE Act is a bird in hand.

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.