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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.