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. 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.

A Senate version of the FIRE Act was introduced by Senators Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Christopher Dodd (D-Connecticut) and it also contained a little surprise for firefighters. It mandates that at least 10% of the funds each year must go to community organizations – outside the fire-rescue service – to carry out fire prevention programs, with priority given to those that focus on preventing injuries to children.

That amounts to a whopping $100 million per year that would go to outside organizations instead of fire departments! It left fire leaders wondering how this ever got into a bill that’s supposed to deal with firefighter health and safety and provide badly needed manpower, equipment and technology for fire departments. The answer: both DeWine and Dodd have been advocates for the SAFE KIDS campaign, which is a national coalition dedicated to preventing accidental injuries to children.

According to DeWine’s office, this was a way of “broadening the appeal” of the FIRE Act by making it “more preventive” in tone. A spokesman for SAFE KIDS – which has been supportive of the FIRE Act from the start – points out that the fire service needs all the outside help it can get for this bill to have any chance of being passed. He adds that SAFE KIDS has sponsored smoke detector and other fire safety campaigns through its 270 state and local coalitions all over the country.

No one in the fire-rescue service wants to get in a squabble with SAFE KIDS, but everyone I talked to was unhappy with the idea that 10% of the FIRE Act funds would be diverted away from the fire departments that desperately need every dollar they can get.

It’s an issue that will have to be discussed when, and if, the FIRE Act ever gets a hearing before a congressional committee. Unlike the House side, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation committee, has said that he will hold a hearing on the bill. (He made that promise while campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in New Hampshire.)

For now, it’s academic, because the odds are stacked against the FIRE Act being passed by this Congress and signed into law by this President. Regardless, the fire-rescue service has to go ahead and fight the good fight. Hopefully, the hard lessons learned in this battle will be applied next year, when we’ll start all over with a new Congress and a new President.