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Like everyone else in Washington and around the country, the fire-rescue service is anxious to learn more about President Bush's bold plan to make the Department of Homeland Security into a huge and powerful cabinet office. This is the biggest government reorganization in the last half century and has touched off a debate over how it will accomplish its goal of strengthening the nation's defense against terrorism.
The initial reaction from fire leaders has been favorable, though they want to see the details in order to determine how it's going to affect existing and proposed programs that provide federal support for first responders. But all agree that the massive shakeup was long overdue and that drastic steps have to be taken to bring some order out of the chaos and bureaucratic wrangling that, at times, has hampered many aspects of the war against terrorism.
In fact, fire chiefs have been warning for the past 10 years that the federal anti-terrorism effort was being weakened by turf wars, a lack of coordination, and failure to get the money for training and equipment down to the first responders. They were among the first to call for a coordinated effort under the leadership of a top-level official who would have the authority to break through the bureaucratic maze and make things happen. But their warnings went unheeded, until last Sept. 11.
The Bush plan calls for all or parts of 22 federal agencies - with 169,000 employees and $37 billion in budget money - to be transferred from existing cabinet offices to the new department. In a town where protecting your turf is a way of life, no one gives up that much power without a struggle, either openly or behind the scenes. Dozens of congressional committees and subcommittees have jurisdiction over these agencies and the senior House and Senate chairmen who control their budgets are as reluctant as the bureaucrats to see any change in the status quo. There also is opposition from some of the federal employee labor unions and from lobbyists who represent special interests that profit from the anti-terror programs.
Regardless, the President is going to get most of what he's asking for because public opinion demands that something be done to restore confidence in the government's ability to prevent and respond to the terrorist threat. As we reported in last month's column, there has been growing concern that the Office of Homeland Security, under Director Tom Ridge, did not have the authority to coordinate and control rival agencies that were conducting "business as usual." The office had to be upgraded to cabinet level, though no one expected it to happen this fast or on this scale. Revelations that the CIA and the FBI failed to share information and take action that might have prevented the 9/11 attack had a hard impact on Congress and the White House, and undoubtedly sped up the process.
The plan calls for the new Department of Homeland Security to have four major divisions, with fire-rescue and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coming under the Emergency Preparedness and Response division. (The other three divisions will cover border and transportation security, weapons of mass destruction and the analysis of intelligence information from outside agencies, such as the FBI and CIA.) Along with its beefed-up role against terrorism, FEMA will continue to carry out its responsibilities for dealing with other types of natural and man-made disasters.
In addition to FEMA, the division would take in five agencies from other cabinet departments, such as the Department of Justice's Office of Domestic Preparedness and the Department of Energy's Nuclear Incident Response office. But FEMA, with a proposed budget of $6 billion and 5,000 employees, is the division's core agency. A Homeland Security briefing book describes FEMA as "a central component" that is "critical to the Department's success." The book also states that "…the Department would assume authority over federal grant programs for local and state first responders such as firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel" that are currently being managed by other departments.
This raises important questions that can't be answered at this time. What will happen to the FIRE Act program, which is funded separately and administered by FEMA through direct grants to local fire departments? Will it be folded in or added to Homeland Security's plan for $3.5 billion to be distributed through state governments for local fire, police and emergency medical services? Fire organizations has been told that the FIRE Act would remain a separate program, but that was before plans for the Department of Homeland Security were suddenly unveiled.
These and other complicated questions will be answered as Congress and the Bush administration undertake the monumental task of creating a new cabinet department. The President wants the job completed by Jan. 1, but the congressional leaders in both parties want to move even faster and have pledged that they'll try to get it done by Sept. 11. Along with that being a symbolic date, Congress would like to get it out of the way before adjourning in October to get home and campaign in the midterm election. It has the potential to be a red-hot political issue and everyone who's up for re-election - which includes all 435 House members and 34 senators - would like to be able to say that they supported the President and took action to strengthen the country's defense against terrorism.
However, with all that's at stake, there's certain to be a lot of tough infighting behind the scenes in both Congress and the federal bureaucracy. They may not make the deadlines they've set, but eventually there is going to be a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security and it's going to be big and powerful. But, until that happens, the FIRE Act grants will be the only source of federal aid and fire departments will continue to depend on their own limited resources to prepare their response to terrorist attacks.
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.