A Change Of Heart On Capitol Hill

When I wrote last month’s column, there was good reason to be pessimistic about the 2002 economic outlook and its impact on the fire-rescue service. It still looks grim at the state and local levels, but all signs indicate that Congress and the Bush administration are determined to give first responders the federal aid that’s needed to prepare for terrorist attacks.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough is that everyone now understands that local fire departments are the only agency that can respond in time to save lives. There no longer is any talk that the FBI, the National Guard, the Army or the Marines can do the job of first responders. They may have important roles to play, but in the first hours after a terrorist strikes, it’s firefighters and EMS personnel who have to make the rescues and treat the victims.

There also is a realization that fire departments need help. You no longer hear the argument that the federal government should not be involved because fire-rescue is a local responsibility. The new mood on Capitol Hill is that the federal government has to provide whatever aid is needed to equip and train fire departments to face the threat of terrorism. Even the most conservative congressmen, including some who previously opposed federal aid for firefighters, have had a change of heart since Sept. 11.

As reported here last month, Congress appropriated $150 million for the second year of the FIRE Act grant program. Then they added another $210 million as part of an emergency supplemental bill. That makes a total of $360 million for the FIRE Act in this fiscal year – $60 million more than the original authorization! In addition, they authorized a two-year extension of the grants program to be funded at $900 million for 2003 and 2004! This is the same program that barely squeaked through in the last Congress and was threatened with extinction only a year ago.

We’ve learned the hard way that “authorizing” and “appropriating” are two different things. There’s no way of knowing how much money they’ll actually come up with next year. But the mere fact that they reauthorized the FIRE Act tells you how much things have changed in the last five months.

As this is written, no one knows what President George W. Bush is going to call for in his State of the Union message or what he’ll propose in his 2003 budget. But we’re told that the administration may increase spending on homeland security by as much as $15 billion, with a sizeable amount specifically earmarked for fire departments as first responders.

There are some things that the fire-rescue service should know about Tom Ridge, the director of the Office of Homeland Security. He won the Bronze Star as an Army sergeant in Vietnam and served six terms in Congress before running for governor of Pennsylvania in 1994. I first encountered him in that campaign, when I moderated a debate on fire-rescue issues. Of all the candidates, Ridge was the best prepared to discuss the questions and obviously had done his homework. He won the debate and the election and, as governor, delivered on his promises to Pennsylvania firefighters. Ridge is a tough, plain-talking man who would be at home sitting around the kitchen table in any firehouse.

In my December column, I expressed the wish that Ridge could have known Battalion Chief Ray Downey of the New York Fire Department’s Special Operations Command, who was among the firefighters lost at the World Trade Center. I also hoped that Ridge would appoint a veteran fire officer to his staff and I’ve since learned that he already had taken that step. Retired Captain Michael Byrne, a 20-year FDNY veteran who served under Chief Downey, is one of Ridge’s senior directors and will be dealing with fire-rescue response. It’s another positive sign.

One area of special concern is the state of hazardous materials response teams. Most departments of any size now have hazmat units, but very few local governments have provided the kind of money that’s needed for training and equipment. The ugly truth is that many of these teams have been operating on shoe-string budgets. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, some jurisdictions have come up with additional hazmat funds, but much more is needed.

There also are rumblings that the bill to provide $7 billion in federal funds to hire 75,000 firefighters may not be as dead as it seemed at the end of last year. It’s still buried in committee, but there is a serious effort underway to bring it back to life. Members of Congress are becoming aware of the danger posed by under-staffed fire departments. All of the federal aid will be wasted if there aren’t enough firefighters on the engine and truck companies that respond to an act of terrorism.

The FDNY’s official death toll for the World Trade Center is 343, but everyone should know that a 344th firefighter died in the line of duty that day. He is Patrolman Keith Roma of the New York Fire Insurance Patrol, assigned to Fire Patrol Company 2, which responded on the first alarm and was assisting in rescue operations in the north tower when it collapsed.

Starting in the 19th century, 23 cities once had fire patrols sponsored by the insurance underwriters. Sadly, all but three New York companies were disbanded in the late 1950s. The patrols had their own firehouses and apparatus and could be distinguished by the red helmets they wore as they spread salvage covers and saved valuable property at working fires. The patrolmen earned the respect of firefighters they served with and often assisted in making rescues. They also were injured and lost their lives in backdrafts, flashovers and building collapses – the same as any fireman.

Keith Roma is the 32nd New York fire patrolman to die in the line of duty. He will be honored next October at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, along with the 343 FDNY members and about 100 other firefighters who made the supreme sacrifice last year.

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.