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The good news is that the President's budget for the 2003 fiscal year calls for $3.5 billion to be spent on support of first responders as part of the Homeland Security defense. Most of the money will go to local fire, police and emergency medical services to provide training and equipment to meet the threat of terrorism. It confirms the Bush administration's recognition of the crucial role firefighters play in every type of disaster and marks a higher level of federal spending for the fire-rescue service.
The bad news is that there are flaws in how the funds are going to be distributed. Another major concern is that they cannot be spent on one of the most serious problems facing the nation's under-staffed fire departments: the desperate need to hire more firefighters. It also may signal an end to the FIRE Act grant program and it is unclear as to how much money will actually reach local fire departments after 25% is taken off the top by state governments.
Under the proposal, no funds will go directly from Washington to the local level. Instead, the money will be allocated to the states on a per capita basis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). After keeping the state's share, governors will control distribution of the remaining 75% to local jurisdictions. Fire departments seeking federal aid will have to submit plans on how they intend to use the money to both FEMA and their state governments. Once a plan has been approved, states will have 30 days to deliver the money to a local agency.
President Bush and Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, are both former governors and it's logical that they would see the states as the best way to administer the program. But many fire chiefs do not have much faith in state government. Their lack of confidence is based on experience in dealing with state officials on a wide range of issues - including money. While grateful for the Bush administration's good intentions, they are concerned that putting the money and the power in the hands of governors will create a needless bureaucratic obstacle that could impede the program. There also is concern that state-local politics could come into play in dispensing the funds to cities, towns and counties.
The fire-rescue service wants the money to go directly from FEMA to the local level with no detours and no middlemen involved. Fire officials have a new sense of confidence in FEMA under the leadership of Director Joe Allbaugh. Everyone was impressed by the fair and open way that FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) handled the first year of the FIRE Act grants. (The fire-rescue service owes a big "thank you" to Ken Burris, the USFA's former chief operating officer, who made it happen and who now is a FEMA regional director.)
Along with worries over how the homeland defense program will be administered, fire leaders were caught by surprise when it was learned that the President's $2.13 trillion budget does not include the $900 million that Congress authorized for the 2003 FIRE Act grants. Apparently, the administration believes that there is no need for the grant program because of the $3.5 billion proposed for first responders under homeland security.
However, local fire departments will get only a share of that money, which is why the fire-rescue service wants the FIRE Act to be continued. Officers of the major fire organizations presented a united front on this issue when they testified before a Senate subcommittee on appropriations. Heads of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) called for funding the 2003 grants at the full $900 million. And, they endorsed the IAFF's proposal that half of the money be earmarked for recruiting and hiring more firefighters.
Hiring more firefighters was included in the FIRE Act, but was set aside by mutual agreement in the first year because there wasn't enough money available. IAFF President Harold Schaitberger testified that "two-thirds of all fire departments, large and small, operate with inadequate staffing…Congress would never allow our Army to engage in war with two-thirds of its divisions understaffed. Incredibly, this is what we are asking our local fire departments to do."
Chief John Buckman III, president of the IAFC, supported the IAFF and bluntly stated that the goal was to put a minimum of four firefighters on every company. He also called for all federal aid to be funneled through FEMA and go directly to local fire departments under an expanded FIRE Act. "We do not think there is a need to establish any new programs for terrorism preparedness. The mechanisms to get the necessary resources to local responders are in place. Let's use them," Buckman urged.
NVFC Chairman Phil Stittleburg warned that the needs of smaller communities should not be overlooked in the preparedness effort and expressed the fire-rescue service's distrust of the funding plan when he said: "We are concerned about the possibility that a large portion of this new funding for equipment and training will get bogged down in state agencies and will not get down to the local first responders."
The subcommittee members were impressed to see the chiefs, the union and the volunteers standing shoulder-to-shoulder in complete agreement. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the chairperson, expressed the majority view when she declared that there was "no need to reinvent the wheel" and that federal funds should go directly to local governments.
The big question is whether these arguments will impress the Bush administration and the rest of Congress. It will be very difficult to persuade the White House that fire-rescue money should not go through the state capitols before it reaches local fire departments. And, even though there is bipartisan support in Congress for the President when it comes to the war on terrorism, you can bet that Democrats and Republicans will engage in many partisan fights in a midterm election year.
The battle of the budget will be a big one and the fire-rescue service will need all of the political and public support it can muster. It will be interesting to see how much the current wave of admiration for firefighters translates into genuine support on these crucial issues.
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.