Firehouse® Interview: Congressman Curt Weldon

Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA) is a former volunteer fire chief in Marcus Hook, PA, and founder of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), which is dedicated to educating members of Congress on issues of fire and life safety. He is a graduate of West Chester State University and was a school teacher and business executive before beginning his career in public service in the late 1970s, when he was elected mayor of his hometown. He later was elected to the Delaware County Council, then was elected to represent the people of Pennsylvania's Seventh Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1986.


Congressman Curt Weldon

On March 4, 2002, I had the privilege of talking one on one with Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA) via telephone. This interview was conducted the night prior to the congressional hearing on Crisis Procurement, which Weldon served as chair.

I specifically asked Weldon, "How do we enhance fire service technology and how do we transition military technology to the fire service?" First, Weldon reminded me that the main reason for our limited success of the past was a direct result from the lack of solidarity between fire service agencies. He said that when the fire service agencies came together in a unified effort, it made a resounding statement to legislators. The result was the FIRE Act Grant program.

In contrast, Weldon stated, "Law enforcement has had its act together for many years." He further reemphasized, "Unification of the fire service and awareness of elected officials and the public is essential - that crystallized following 9/11."

Next, Weldon focused on his vision of how he proposes to push military technology to the fire service. "We need a national focus of transferring every type of technology that applies to health and safety for the military to the fire service," he said. "I propose a national technology transition center with research labs in a coordinated research effort that could potentially facilitate $38 billion in new research that would benefit the fire service. We could be further developing the multidimensional GPS that would prevent future firefighter deaths like those tragically lost in Worcester. Research from NASA and the Navy could benefit the design of cutting edge technology for better protective clothing. The miniaturization of thermal imaging could be expanded to the fire service. Such a technology transition center would open an interactive dialogue between all of this research and various fire and emergency service agencies."

Weldon also explained that he had been working with Dick Healing, who works on "Safety and Survivability" for the U.S. Navy. He said that Healing has been taking technology off the shelf and researching ways of putting them into real-life uses to improve safety and survivability. Weldon has asked for Healing's help to develop a game plan that would identify military research that could be quickly transitioned for use by the fire service.

Military Technology

I asked Weldon, "How do we overcome the top-secret classifications of this technology?" He replies that he had that very discussion with Healing, who said he believes that 50% or more of current classified military technology could be declassified for the fire service. Weldon gave an example of technology that was used to identify rocket launches by satellite.

"That same technology was and can be used to detect the early ignition of forest fires and provide invaluable information to wildland fire commanders and we could use existing military staff to facilitate those notifications and exchange of information," Weldon said. "If it's good enough to protect our soldiers (international defenders), its good enough to protect our firefighters (domestic defenders). It's time we all become one team for our nation's defense."

I asked Weldon about his thoughts on a national public safety radio system and the need for increased radio spectrum for emergency services. He responded, "It is the number-one national scandal that we do not have a national integrated public safety radio system - a national disgrace! This is another example of how military radio technology could benefit the emergency services for communication, command, coordination and the like. We must and will move forward to secure the necessary radio bandwidth that will enable the fire service to use this technology."

I also asked Weldon about his impressions of how other key government officials feel about technology, a national radio system and continued funding for the fire service. He answered, "First, I must say that (former FEMA Director) James Lee Witt did a great job at FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and he is a personal friend; however, he did not have the ear of the President as does (FEMA Director) Joe Allbaugh. Joe Allbaugh headed the Bush campaign and is very highly trusted by President Bush. Joe Allbaugh has a background in emergency services, he understands the needs and he has the ear of the President. Joe Allbaugh spent tons of time in New York City to fully understand the impact that the 9/11 tragedy had on the fire service and the nation.

"Furthermore, I have met with Tom Ridge and he is on board and is in full support of providing the fire service with additional funding for training and equipment and keeping the FIRE Act Grant a separate program. The new United States Fire Administrator, Dave Paulison (former chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue), will also make a great difference. Paulison is a man with a strong fire service background, great conviction and will definitely put the fire service first."

Fire Service Priorities

Ending the interview, I asked Weldon what main points would he like to impress upon the fire service. He responded with the following three main points:

  1. Demand transition of live-saving technology from military to fire service.
  2. Lobby for full funding of $900 million for the FIRE Act grant program.
  3. Build a national Fire/EMS Center much like that of the FBI, which would include a national fire museum, offices that would serve as a clearing house for emergency service agencies, including the U.S. Fire Administrator.

Weldon also urged every member of the fire service to send letters and e-mails and to make telephone calls to their elected officials in Congress asking that these three suggestions be supported.

A follow-up article will recap the Crisis Procurement subcommittee meeting that was held on March 5, 2002.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 25-year veteran and deputy chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He is a member of the webteam and is the editor of the Technology Zone. Werner serves on the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Technology/Communications Task Force and is chair of the State Fire Chiefs Association of Virginia (SFCAV) Technology Committee. He is the webmaster for the SFCAV, the National Fire Academy Alumni Association, the National Fire Service Incident Management System Consortium and the International Association of Wildland Fire.