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Despite the expectation of more federal aid and the public’s new admiration for firefighters, 2002 still looks like another tough year for the nation’s fire departments as local governments return to the budget cutting of the early 1990s. The problem is a recession that has ended the economic boom and produced a shortfall in tax revenues.
There was some hope that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 would cause local officials to realize that they had to spend more money on fire-rescue services or, at least, think twice before ordering new budget cuts. But it doesn’t seem to be working that way. Some jurisdictions have come up with additional funds for hazmat and other anti-terrorism measures, but when it comes to the meat-and-potatoes – like hiring more firefighters to bring understaffed companies up to a minimum standard – you can forget about it. The word is out in many fire departments to hold the line or, worse yet, find more places to cut spending.
The situation is similar to the recession of 10 years ago, when local elected officials slashed fire-rescue budgets by closing stations and reducing the manpower on engine and ladder companies. They also cut funds for apparatus, equipment and training, along with fire prevention and arson investigation programs. There were promises that these “temporary” cuts would be restored when the economy improved, but in most places that never happened. The economy boomed in the mid-1990s; cities, towns and counties wound up with surplus tax revenue, but very little went back to the fire departments. Instead, the money was spent on police and schools, while politicians outdid each other in giving tax cuts to the voters – despite warnings that they would be in trouble when the good times ended.
The boom ended last year and now they have to curtail spending. Once again, fire-rescue is a prime target. What’s different this time is the terrorist threat and the public’s hero worship of their firefighters in the aftermath of 9-11. You can’t turn on television without seeing another tribute to “America’s new heroes.” But this love affair hasn’t translated into public awareness of the problems facing firefighters nor has it produced support for the issues that threaten everyone’s health and safety. Many local officials still think they can cut fire-rescue services without fear of arousing public opinion or being held accountable.
Those who are anticipating that huge amounts of federal aid will bail them out are going to be disappointed. Federal money is coming, but it’s going to be slow getting there and will be far less than expected. As previously reported in this column, members of Congress went on a binge to introduce billions of dollars’ worth of bills immediately after the terrorist attacks. Everyone wanted to get their name on a piece of legislation to help firefighters. But most of it didn’t have a chance of being passed and was quickly buried in the congressional committees, never to be seen again.
One bill that the fire organizations took seriously called for a federal program to spend $7 billion over a period of seven years to hire 75,000 firefighters. The federal funds would pay 75% of the salaries and benefits in the first three years, with local government taking over the full amount in the fourth year and beyond. It was aimed at solving the most serious problem facing many departments – understaffed companies. But guess where the opposition came from? You got it. Mayors, city managers, county officials didn’t like the idea of having to hire more firefighters and picking up the tab after three years. The hiring bill appears to be DOA, though an effort will be made to revive it later this year.