Communications, Labor Issues Top Fire Service's D.C. Agenda

Once again, Washington is in the throes of a major political scandal and, whenever that happens, taking care of the nation's business grinds to a frustrating crawl. This time, it's the Clinton White House and the Democratic National Committee who are in trouble over the unethical and possibly illegal raising of campaign funds. The news media are in hot pursuit, with daily revelations of wrongdoing, and a Senate committee is ready to conduct nationally televised hearings.

It's not as bad as it was during Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals, but the atmosphere is getting poisonous. The era of good feeling between the newly elected Republican Congress and the re-elected Demo-cratic president didn't last very long. It started to deteriorate with the party-line fight over the reprimand of House Speaker Newt Gingrich for ethics violations. Gingrich took a hard rap on the knuckles, but hung onto the speaker's office. However, his power has been diminished and he no longer can push legislation through the House as he did in the last Congress.

With all of this turmoil and fragmented leadership, it will be more difficult for interest groups to get their bills on track for passage in this session. Nevertheless, each of the fire-rescue organizations has proposed federal legislation of special concern to their constituencies and each will be lobbying their friends on Capitol Hill, which is the way this system works.

Perhaps the hottest issue and one the fire service can agree on is the need to preserve more of the communications spectrum for use by public safety agencies. Emergency radio frequencies already are overcrowded and new ones are needed to ease the congestion and allow fire and police departments to make use of new technology that will improve radio communications. The emergency community became alarmed when several people proposed that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction off parts of the spectrum to commercial broadcasters as a means of raising revenues to cut the federal budget deficit.

This is an all-around bad idea that not even the broadcasters want to see happen. Police and the fire-rescue service are concerned that an auction would disregard the needs of public safety agencies. The Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee has petitioned Congress to urge the FCC to immediately reserve 24 megahertz from broadcast channels 60-69 exclusively for public safety. They also ask that the whole question of radio spectrum be treated as a public safety issue rather than a budget or telecommunications issue.

On another front, there is agreement among the fire organizations that more help is needed to train and equip first responders in dealing with acts of terrorism. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has taken the lead in proposing that Congress maintain the amount of money appropriated in the last budget for awareness training and, in some areas, increase funding for defense against weapons of mass destruction. This includes the threat of nuclear, chemical and biological attacks and the need for medical strike teams to be organized. The fire-rescue service is better prepared to cope with bombings than it was at the time of the Oklahoma City attack, but there still are not enough urban search and rescue teams in a state of full readiness and no one is equipped to handle a large-scale chemical incident.

The National Volunteer Fire Council's top priority is the Volunteer Firefighter & Rescue Squad Worker Protection Act, which has been re-introduced in this session as HR 94. Its aim is to revise a section of the Fair Labor Standards Act so that career firefighters can serve as volunteers on their home companies while off duty. The Department of Labor stopped this practice after complaints from a local union and it has had a negative impact on companies where off-duty career personnel were active volunteers. No one wants them to volunteer in the same station where they are assigned as career firefighters and language is being drafted to prevent the possibility of paid personnel being coerced into working without pay on their own time.

As in the past, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) will strongly oppose this bill. Its own top priority is an item in President Clinton's fiscal 1998 budget that would provide $2.5 million for federal investigations into every firefighter line-of-duty death. The IAFF believes this is necessary because so many cities have reduced firefighter staffing and are cutting corners to save money, thereby placing lives in jeopardy. The investigations would be conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health.

Also of concern to the IAFF is a national collective bargaining bill that would bring all paid personnel under collective bargaining agreements. At present, about a third of the 225,000 paid fire-rescue workers are not covered. Opposition will come from state and local officials who believe this could lead to strikes, but the truth is that most collective bargaining agreements contain an anti-strike provision.

There are many other legislative items involving the fire-rescue service, but these seem to be the top priorities. Hopefully, where they are in agreement such as the anti-terrorism and radio spectrum issues the fire organization will work together. On issues where they disagree, each will push its own point of view and work hard to prevent their bills from being buried in committees. Given the forces at play in the early months of this 105th Congress, it's going to be a formidable task for everyone.

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