After 20 Years, Political Issues Abound

The fire-rescue service has undergone many changes in the 20 years I've been writing this column some for the better and some for the worse. And, some things never change. At times, I've been encouraged; at other times, very discouraged. But, at all times, good or bad, it has been a learning experience. Perhaps the most important lesson is how essential it is to understand and be involved in the politics that affect everything we do.

Though I had been an active volunteer firefighter for many years, I never thought much about politics and the fire service until my friend Dennis Smith asked me to write for the magazine he was starting. It was his idea to have a monthly column on "Fire Politics." I was concerned that there would not be enough to write about and that firefighters (like me) would not be interested in politics. How wrong I was! As things turned out, there is plenty to write about and the major dilemma each month is deciding which subject to cover. Another of the many lessons I've learned is that there never is a lack of political problems confronting the American fire service.

My first column back in the fall of 1976 covered residency rules being imposed on career firefighters. I pointed out how unfair, unreasonable and demoralizing it is to force firefighters and their families to live inside the city limits, where they usually have to pay more for inferior housing and bad schools. I wrote about it many times, but it's an example of how some things never change. Only last month, I was with a big-city fire chief who told me of the turmoil his department is going through because the mayor has decided to crack down on residency. It was a stupid idea 20 years ago and, in my opinion, it's still stupid.

On the brighter side, we've seen a genuine improvement in fire safety codes, retroactive sprinkler laws and ordinances requiring smoke detectors in every building, including single-family homes. There has been a dramatic reduction in the annual fire death toll in these 20 years and there's no doubt that smoke detectors have been a contributing factor. We've also seen an expansion of emergency medical services and the first-responder system, along with technical advancements that have enabled EMS personnel and firefighters to save many more lives. Well-trained hazardous materials teams are now a part of many departments and there's no way of knowing how many firefighters' lives have been saved by avoiding exposure to toxic chemicals.

At the federal level, the Congres-sional Fire Service Caucus was founded by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), and has played a pro-active role in promoting the cause of fire safety and protecting the federal fire programs. The caucus has demonstrated how much can be accomplished when firefighters have support in a legislative body.

There finally has been recognition that local fire departments are the first-responders in every disaster - natural or man-made. The fire service often is treated like an unwelcome outsider when it comes to dealing with the threat of terrorism, but Oklahoma City and other incidents have demonstrated the value of urban search-and-rescue teams and the need for more to be organized. The U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy are still alive and functioning, despite some turbulent years and several efforts to wipe them out. It's a miracle that they've survived and, hopefully, will live up to the great expectations we all had when they were created 20 years ago.

The most depressing story we've covered in two decades of writing this column has been the tax and spending limitations imposed on state and local governments and the devastating impact this has had on the fire-rescue service. It no longer matters if economic conditions are good or bad; the budget squeeze remains and fire departments have been a prime target for the budget-cutters. The staffing of engine and truck companies is a national scandal that no one outside the fire service seems to know or care about. All across the country, departments are running under-manned engine and truck companies; a staffing level that once was considered substandard is now accepted as normal.

It should NOT be acceptable and the challenge facing the fire-rescue service is to convince the public and elected officials that there is no such thing as cheap fire protection or cut-rate emergency medical services. Unfortunately, we've seen how fast a great fire department can be crippled by politicians whose first and only priority is to save money and lower taxes. Too often, the fire service is silent, the news media are ignorant and the taxpayers don't know or don't believe that their lives and property are being endangered.

I know there have been times when I've sounded like a broken record and ill-tempered scold. But the fight for budgets that will provide enough money to properly staff our fire departments is a political battle that has to be fought at every level. Along with being the most depressing story, it probably is the most important we've covered.

Finally, my thanks to all of you for your support and ideas. I regret that I can't answer every letter, but I'm grateful for the education you've given me. I respect your opinions whether we agree or disagree, and I always admire your dedication to the fire service. And, my thanks to Firehouse and PTN Publishing Co. for the privilege of conducting this column with total freedom to present all opinions and tackle any issue no matter how controversial it may be.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.