Fire-Rescue Service Has Washington’s Ear

There are hopeful signs that Congress and the Bush administration are listening to the fire-rescue service when it comes to critical issues surrounding the FIRE Act and the first responder package in the Homeland Security Defense budget. The fact that this could happen is a measure of how much things have changed in Washington since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Seven months ago, hardly anyone paid much attention to what fire officials were saying; today, there is a genuine effort to seek out their opinions and there is a good chance they may be heeded.

As we reported last month, the President's budget for the 2003 fiscal year calls for an expenditure of $3.5 billion to help local fire, police and emergency medical services prepare for their response to acts of terrorism. However, the proposed budget failed to include $900 million that Congress had authorized for next year's FIRE Act grants. This sounded an alarm that the Bush administration intended to combine the two programs into one by not funding the FIRE Act. That brought immediate objections from all of the fire service organizations and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Apparently, that is not what the White House had in mind - though it may have been what the Office of Management & Budget intended to do. At a meeting with the Terrorism Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, stated that he strongly supported the FIRE Act as a separate program with appropriate funding. In testimony before a congressional committee, FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh expressed his support for the grant program and reaffirmed his opposition to combining it with homeland defense spending.

It's important to understand that fire departments will receive only a portion of that $3.5 billion Homeland Security package. Five percent will come off the top for administrative costs and 25% will go to state governments on a per capita basis to be used for their anti-terrorism projects. That would leave about $2.4 billion to be divided between fire, police and emergency medical services at the local level, with each governor determining how it will be allocated within their state. If there is an even three-way split, all of the nation's fire departments will share approximately $831 million in anti-terrorism funds. This is one of the reasons why the fire service leadership is so adamant about saving the FIRE Act grant program.

They also are concerned about the anti-terrorism funds being administered by the governors, but that worry has been somewhat alleviated by assurances that the FIRE Act - which distributes the money directly from FEMA to the fire departments - is going to survive. Under the Homeland Security plan, once a state receives its funds, the governor will be required to distribute 75% to the local level within 30 days. A Homeland Security official points out that one of their main objectives is to encourage mutual aid among first responders on a statewide and regional basis. "Unless we get statewide leadership, we'll never get the mutual aid approach that's needed to make this work," he explains.

When the National Governors Association held its annual winter meeting in Washington, it was clear that defense against terrorism has finally become one of their top priorities. (I can remember covering a governors conference a few years ago and drawing blank stares when I asked a question about being prepared for terrorist attacks.) Now the governors are determined to play leadership roles, as they should, and they want their share of money. In practical terms, opposing the Bush administration on this issue would be a losing battle and one that the fire-rescue service should avoid.

You would think that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, most jurisdictions would have taken steps to improve their mutual aid plans. But I suspect the "it-can't-happen-here" mentality still prevails in some places. Given the fanatical and determined nature of the enemy we face, this is a foolish as well as a dangerous attitude. There also is the risk that some local governments are simply waiting for the federal money to arrive. If that's the case, many will be in for a rude awakening. There is a lot of money in these federal programs, but there still isn't enough to take care of the needs of every fire department in the country.

Another danger is that some cities, towns and counties will continue to under-fund their fire departments in the mistaken belief that the federal government will now pick up the slack. "These programs are meant to supplement, not supplant local fire-rescue budgets and we still have all of the unmet needs at the local level that we've been talking about for the last 10 years," a fire service lobbyist points out.

The message should be clear. Federal help is on the way, but it's going to take time to get there and it's not going to be a magic bullet that cures every problem. Local governments must assume their share of the fiscal responsibility to prepare fire departments to meet the threat of terrorism. Some have taken steps to do that since Sept. 11, but some have paid only lip service to the warnings and continue to force their firefighters to operate on shoestring budgets.

Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, the battle of the budget rages on. With the Bush administration agreeing that there will be two programs to aid local fire departments, the ball is in the congressional court. It's up to the Republican-controlled House and the Democratic Senate to appropriate the money for both programs. Just about everything in the proposed $2.13 trillion budget is a target for political warfare in this midterm election year, but hopefully - with the memory of Sept. 11 still fresh in everyone's mind - the $900 million for the FIRE Act and the $3.5 billion for response to terrorism will be neutral items that both parties can support.

Judging from the hearings that have taken place thus far, the mood in Congress appears to be supportive of the fire-rescue service. Helping firefighters is not only good policy these days; it also has become "good politics." Everyone wants to go back home in October and campaign for re-election by boasting that they voted for legislation to aid their local fire departments. That's never happened before and, as one senior fire official puts it: "This is an opportunity that won't come again in our lifetimes."

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.