Fire Politics: Budget Surprise Adds Funds For Federal Fire Programs

All of the public apathy, political indifference and official ignorance that surrounds the fire-rescue service came to mind as I listened to President Clinton deliver his State of the Union address.


All of the public apathy, political indifference and official ignorance that surrounds the fire-rescue service came to mind as I listened to President Clinton deliver his State of the Union address. The President outlined every problem facing the country today – without mentioning the fire and...


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All of the public apathy, political indifference and official ignorance that surrounds the fire-rescue service came to mind as I listened to President Clinton deliver his State of the Union address. The President outlined every problem facing the country today – without mentioning the fire and emergency medical services that play crucial roles in dealing with so many of these problems.

In fairness to Clinton, it should be pointed out that no president has ever paid much attention to the fire-rescue service. In this respect, he’s no worse than his predecessors. But Clinton’s words, along with the timing and setting of his speech, highlighted the frustration facing the nation’s firefighters in seeking help from their government.

For example, the President proposed that federal funds be used to replace the wiring in schools all across the country because it’s too old to connect computers to the Internet. Did it ever occur to him, or to members of Congress, that old wiring in decaying school buildings also is a fire hazard that endangers the lives of children and teachers?

Ironically, the President was speaking in a U.S. Capitol building that has been branded a fire hazard. Last year, a congressional safety inspector’s report called it a violation of laws covering employee health and safety and “a potential threat to human life.”

Only three blocks away stands the empty firehouse of an engine company that was put out of service by the District of Columbia government as a budget-cutting measure. Congress, which has oversight control over the district’s budget, ignored the pleas of Washington firefighters and allowed it to happen.

When it came to crime and the police, the President boasted about his administration’s success in putting 100,000 more police officers on the streets, and asked for more federal money to provide an additional 50,000 for “community policing” in the next fiscal year. Police departments will continue to receive billions in federal aid while fire departments will continue to operate on bare-bones budgets, with under-staffed companies and no hope of any meaningful federal assistance.

But a few weeks later, President Clinton surprised the fire service when he sent his 2001 budget to Congress. Proposed funding for the U.S. Fire Administration was increased by $4 million (to $47 million) and an additional $25 million was tacked on for a new grant program! It’s described as a “pilot demonstration program for firefighter health and safety for fire departments servicing rural and low income communities.”

As this is written, no one is sure of what it can be used for or how it will be administered. However, it’s the first time the White House has acknowledged that the fire-rescue service needs federal help and it’s seen by some officials as a “good first step.” But it’s heavily weighted toward helping the volunteer fire departments and leaves me wondering what, if anything, will be done to help the career and combination departments that have been hardest hit by local government budget cuts?

While $25 million is not a small amount of money, it’s only a fraction of the $1 billion per year proposed by the Firefighter Investment & Response Act (FIRE Act). And, it falls far short of the $100 million suggested by some House Republican leaders as a substitute for the FIRE Act. Perhaps it was meant as a gesture to make up for the Clinton administration’s lack of support for the FIRE Act. Who knows?

As for the FIRE Act, it remains buried in the House Science committee, with no sign that the GOP leadership will allow it to have a public hearing where the fire-rescue service can present its case. However, behind the scenes, negotiations are underway that would let the Transportation committee hold hearings on a variety of legislation that affects the fire-rescue service, including the FIRE Act.

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