The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a supplemental budget bill that includes $100 million in federal aid for local fire departments. This is an astounding and significant turn of events that threatens what hope is left for the billion-dollar Firefighter Investment and Response Act (FIRE Act). But it also sends a signal that Congress finally recognizes that the federal government has a responsibility to assist the nation’s firefighters – just as it does for the police.
There still is a legislative maze to navigate before this program becomes law and a lot of things can go wrong along the way. But it has been approved by key Republican leaders who control Congress and it drew impressive bipartisan support when the House passed it by an overwhelming vote of 386 to 28.
That support was pulled together by co-sponsors Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and the Congressional Fire Service Caucus. The fire program actually is an amendment tacked on to a supplemental emergency spending bill that would give the Clinton administration $12.7 billion for military operations in Kosovo, anti-drug efforts in Latin America, hurricane disaster relief and other projects.
As drafted by Weldon and Hoyer, the amendment provides for $80 million in matching grants that fire departments can use for equipment and protective clothing, communications and computer technology, health and fitness programs, modifications and repairs to stations and training facilities. It also provides for fire and EMS training programs, fire prevention and code enforcement, arson prevention and detection.
In addition, $10 million is specifically earmarked for rural fire departments and another $10 million is set aside for burn prevention programs, including research and aid to hospital burn centers. Unlike the FIRE Act, this program does not provide money to purchase apparatus or to hire firefighters. And, it is for one year only, where the FIRE Act would have been a five-year project.
Weldon tried to make fire departments eligible for a share of the $4.75 billion in community development block funds that go to the states and counties. But Democrats from big-city districts objected to sharing that money with the fire-rescue service and it was dropped in order to hold the bipartisan support.
Grants will be awarded on a competitive basis and a department must show financial need and come up with matching funds in order to qualify. Those receiving grants will be required to report their statistics to the National Fire Incident Report System – something many departments have been negligent in doing. The program will be administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
How the emergency spending bill and the fire amendment will fare in the Senate is uncertain as this is written. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) is reported to be cool to any supplemental spending, but other GOP leaders see it as a necessity and help for the fire service has the backing of some powerful Senate committee chairmen.
As previously reported here, the idea of a $100 million fire bill had been floated by the House Republican leadership when it became clear that the FIRE Act would stay buried in the House Science committee. The Clinton administration, which had not shown any interest in the FIRE Act, proposed a modest $25 million program to aid local fire departments. The fire organizations didn’t like either plan and kept pressing for a hearing that would lead to an up or down vote on the FIRE Act.
They lobbied hard on Capitol Hill and generated a grass roots campaign that apparently had some impact. While the Science committee remained dug in, the Transportation committee announced an April hearing on fire safety and the White House belatedly endorsed the FIRE Act.
Suddenly, the $100 million proposal came to life when the GOP House leadership passed the word to Weldon that they were ready to move a bill. He and Hoyer quickly drafted the amendment and rallied support on both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans climbed on board, including some GOP members who had opposed the FIRE Act.
You don’t need a computer to figure out that there’s a vast difference between the one-year, $100 million amendment and the $5 billion that the FIRE Act would provide over five years. “All they’re giving us is crumbs,” was the reaction of a congressional aide who had been pushing for the FIRE Act. And, it’s far less than the billions of dollars in federal aid the police receive every year. But you don’t have to be a political genius to figure out that the choice may be $100 million for one year or going down in flames with the FIRE Act and getting nothing.
That’s the thinking of the major fire organizations who are supporting the Weldon-Hoyer amendment. “It’s not the end game, but it’s the first step in the direction we want to go,” says one fire service lobbyist. Another adds that “it gets Congress on record that the U.S. government has a role to play in supporting local fire departments.” And, a third explains: “What we’re getting here is real money … and it increases the chances that a FIRE Act will be passed in the future.”
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ), who created and introduced the FIRE Act, was among those caught by surprise. But he played the role of a good soldier and voted for the amendment. However, in his remarks to the House, Pascrell pointed out that it does not provide money to hire more firefighters or buy new apparatus – which are the two most costly items for financially strapped fire departments. Pascrell declared: “I am not satisfied with this. I do not believe this is enough. We have a greater responsibility to those who are our first responders … Make no mistake about it, this amendment is not the FIRE bill. It is just a down payment on a much larger obligation to the fire service and our communities.”
Pascrell’s bill may be superseded by the amendment, but he deserves credit for being the catalyst who made it all happen. If it hadn’t been for his FIRE Act, Congress would never have considered a $100 million program to help the fire-rescue service. And, now that they’ve established a precedent that the federal government can and should provide financial aid to local fire departments, there is reason to hope that a future Congress may produce legislation on a scale closer to the FIRE Act.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter.