FIRE Act Testimony Shows Differences
LON SLEPICKA, Firehouse.Com News

On July 8, testimony on S.2411, the reauthorization bill for the FIRE Act in the Senate was taken by Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chaired by Senator John McCain. The written testimony on several areas of impact submitted, provided the positions of those closely involved with the fire service or government entities administering the FIRE Act,. Not all addressed each specific area but the following outlines their line of direction.

Those speaking included:

C. Suzanne Mencer Director, Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness (OSLGCP) (DHS).
David Paulison, U.S. fire administrator (USFA),
Chief Ernest Mitchell, President (IAFC).
James Monihan, Legislative Committee Chairman (NVFC).
James M. Shannon, President and CEO (NFPA).
Billy Shields, (IAFF),

Moving the mission of the FIRE Act toward terrorism preparedness
Shannon NFPA: While it is not specifically a terrorism program, the FIRE Grant program provides the foundation on which terrorism preparedness must be built. These basic levels of preparedness, which we know so many departments lack, must be adequately met. Monihan NVFC: However, we cannot lose sight of the 21 million calls the fire service responds to annually involving structural fire suppression, emergency medical response, hazardous materials incidents, clandestine drug labs, search and rescue, wildland fire protection and natural disasters. The federal government must not forgo its commitment to the basic needs of America's fire service in the name of Homeland Security. Mitchell IAFC: While ODP has committed to running this program in substantially the same manner as the USFA, we are concerned about the strong emphasis on terrorism response. Acts of terrorism are just some of the many hazards to which America's fire service responds. Congress has made it clear that the FIRE Act is intended to build the basic tools of firefighting in order to enhance our all-hazards response….. We are concerned that ODP's emphasis on terrorism might undermine this overarching goal and begin the transformation of the FIRE Act into a terrorism-response program. Mencer OSLGCP: The President's FY 2005 budget request for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program will focus on those authorized program categories that support the homeland security role of America's fire service……..OSLGCP is responsible for preparing our nation against terrorism by assisting States, local jurisdictions, regional authorities, and Tribal governments with building their capacity to prepare for, prevent, and respond to acts of terrorism. Through its programs and activities, ODP equips, trains, exercises, and supports State and local homeland security personnel -- our nation's first responders -- who may be called upon to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

The administration of the FIRE Act was transferred to the ODP in FY 2004. Should it go back to the U.S Fire Administration?
Monihan NVFC: However, the U.S Fire Administration (USFA), under the leadership of Chief R. David Paulison, has spent the last four years developing and refining the program and has clearly demonstrated the capability to efficiently distribute these funds to local fire departments. This is no surprise to us because the personnel at USFA know the fire service like no other agency and many of their personnel have emergency services backgrounds themselves….. In addition, there is a substantial concern within our organization that because ODP's mission only deals with terrorism preparedness and because the agency does not have experience working with local fire departments or local jurisdictions, this shift could be detrimental to the program. Therefore, we support all efforts to once again have USFA administer the program. Mencer OSLGCP: I am happy to report that the administration of this critical program under OSLGCP is moving forward with great success. Mitchell IAFC: Mr. Chairman, I ask that you amend this bill to move the FIRE Act back within the jurisdiction of the USFA. The IAFC supported placing the USFA in charge of the FIRE Act in the initial authorization, and we support it in H.R. 4107, the companion reauthorization bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. The USFA has very successfully managed this program, and we commend Administrator David Paulison for his outstanding leadership. Paulison USFA: In 2004, OSLGCP, with USFA assistance and subject matter expertise, managed the FIRE Act grants program within DHS. USFA continues to work closely with OSLGCP to ensure the continued success of this vital program. Shields IAFF: While we concur with USFA supporters that the agency has done an extraordinary job of running this program to date, we disagree that only USFA is capable of administering the FIRE Act effectively and efficiently. We believe the model and procedures developed by USFA can be replicated, and we have received repeated assurances from Secretary Tom Ridge, ODP Director Suzanne Mencer and others that whatever agency runs the FIRE Act will do so in the same manner as USFA. We have no reason to doubt their word. We therefore concur with authors of S.2411 that the Secretary should be granted the authority to determine which agency within the Department of Homeland Security is best suited to administer the program. We also support the inclusion of language guaranteeing that USFA will continue to play a role in the program, regardless of which agency has formal authority over it. This will ensure that DHS will make full use of the fire service expertise housed at USFA.

Should the bill contain volunteer non- discrimination language prohibiting a fire department that receives grant funds from discriminating against, or prohibiting its members from engaging in volunteer activities in another jurisdiction (In House version)
Monihan NVFC: We feel that these types of provisions are a violation of the basic First Amendment right of free association. It is very alarming that any city would try to tell a firefighter how they should or should not spend their off-duty time, especially when they are spending that time doing good in their community. Shields IAFF: First and foremost, the language would mark the first time Congress has attempted to use the FIRE Act to dictate local fire department policies. To date, the only requirement is that a department has a legitimate need. Once we begin the process of placing restrictions on how fire departments choose to manage themselves, we are leading down a very thorny path.

Continuing the fire prevention and education portion of the FIRE Act program
Shannon: Although, it is only five percent of the total funding, fire prevention and education activities conducted by our fire departments, educators, and other community leaders address a pressing need. Mencer OSLGCP: The Department will open an additional application period this fall for both fire department and non- fire department organizations that may wish to pursue fire prevention activities. This second application period will surely bolster fire prevention activities under the Fire Act Grant program. Mitchell IAFC: The IAFC is committed as much to preventing fires as we are to extinguishing them. We are also committed to promoting and ensuring firefighter safety. However, funds for those types of activities must be balanced against the dire need for improving emergency response equipment and training. Increasing the amount of funds [5%] available for fire prevention and firefighter safety would start us on a slippery slope of dedicating more of the funding that is needed to serve the FIRE Act's core purposes.

Opening the program to volunteer, non- profit EMS providers
Mitchell IAFC: The FIRE Act is meant to improve the readiness and response of local fire departments. Maintaining this clearly defined purpose is critical to the long-term success of the program. Opening up the program to non-fire service recipients would erode this singular focus. Shields IAFF: While the IAFF strongly supports the use of FIRE Act funds to improve emergency medical services, we nevertheless have reservations about expanding the FIRE Act to agencies other than fire departments. While we understand and appreciate the argument to include EMS providers in jurisdictions where fire departments do not provide EMS, we are concerned that expanding the program to non-fire departments will open the door for other public safety agencies, such as police departments and private sector response organizations. S. 2411, the "Assistance to Firefighters Act of 2004," would reauthorize the Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE Act) grant program for the Fiscal Years 2005 through 2010. On June 18, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4567, the Fiscal Year 2005 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations bill. The bill, which provides appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through September 30, 2005, contains $600 million for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFGP). This is a $100 million increase over the President's FY05 budget request, but is $150 million less than was appropriated by Congress for fiscal year 2004. The Senate committee has reported the bill out with $700 million, which is a cut of $50 million from last year.
Following Senate action, the House and Senate will work out a bill in conference that both can live with.