Fire Politics: The "Fiscal Cliff" And the Fire Service

Those who follow national news have heard of the looming “fiscal cliff.” Without some action soon by Congress, it is widely projected that the economy could be seriously impacted in a way that may send the country into another recession in 2013.

If Congress fails to act before the end of 2012, up to $600 billion in new taxes and spending cuts are due to go into effect that could have significant consequences. There is general agreement that although it is critical that the deficit is reduced, letting this happen all at once is simply not in the best interests of the nation or the economy. The impact on state and local governments, as well as fire departments and federal fire service programs, would be troublesome.

Effects of spending cuts

There is no doubt that deficit reduction is critical to the economic security of our nation and that there must be a realistic plan to address it – starting yesterday. There are many ways to do that, and one of them being proposed is to reduce spending.

Reduced spending at the federal level would affect federal funding that currently finds its way to state and local governments. The loss of this money would require state and local governments to either find alternative funding sources or reduce government programs and services, or implement a combination of both. At a time when the budgets of all government agencies have been strained for several years, and in some cases just beginning to stabilize, the loss of federal funding to states and cities could be difficult to overcome. This loss in federal support would not only be in the form of reductions in direct funding to state and local programs, but in reduced access to federal grants covering a wide variety of uses.

A reduction in funds currently used for federal contractors could also impact state and local economies. Private-sector contractors provide significant support to programs in a variety of ways throughout the federal system. One area receiving a lot of attention involves proposed cuts directed at defense contractors. These companies employ tens of thousands of workers throughout the country. Not only do they offer good-paying jobs, they generate billions of dollars in annual revenue. Depending on the degree of the cuts under consideration, regional and national unemployment rates could rise significantly and state and local budgets become even more stressed.

One of the most troubling consequences of the federal reductions being considered would be a significant cut in the budget of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), including the National Fire Academy (NFA). The USFA and NFA experienced incremental budget cuts over the past several years totaling millions of dollars. This has resulted in reductions in direct USFA programs, reduced support for research and other important undertakings and a cutback in NFA classes.

Local fire departments would likely not escape the impact of the proposed federal budget cuts. Not only could they experience additional reductions in support by the USFA and NFA, but federal grant programs currently directed to fire departments could be threatened. These cuts could impact programs ranging from fire prevention and public education to training and all aspects of emergency operations, infrastructure and administration.

Facing reality

This column is not intended to be a detailed discussion of the challenges facing our country as Congress and the administration decide what approach they will take to address this “fiscal cliff.” The intent is simply to offer a few realities of how the fire service could be impacted if Congress and the administration don’t come to an agreement on a plan, and then implement steps needed to address the national deficit.

The major national fire service organizations, in cooperation with the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), must do all they can to not only communicate to decision-makers the importance of the USFA and NFA to the nation’s fire service, but to explain and prevent the unintended consequences of federal cuts that could compromise public safety and firefighter safety at the state and local levels. Make no mistake, this “fiscal cliff” issue relates directly to the fire service. n