Congressional Staffers Get Fire Services Training

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- For close to 15 years, Congressional staffers have traded the comforts of Capitol Hill for the heat of a dark, smoky room.

The Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI) and Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) played host to more than 50 participants at the annual event, held Nov. 17.

"It helps bring an awareness of the fire service," CFSI Executive Director Bill Webb said. "For most of them this is their first exposure and it kind of brings it all home."

The three-hour crash course allowed those involved to participate in a mock extrication, handle fire hoses, extinguish a controlled burn and experience a building fire up close. Each person donned full turnout gear and was issued an SCBA for the burn building.

Gazbiah Rahaman, who works for the office of U.S. Rep Richard Pombo R-Calif., said she gained a new respect for the fire service after participating in the event.

"Before I thought, 'It's just a job. They do their work and that's what they do.' Now that I've actually been through some of it -- knowing it's ten times tougher than what I went through -- I understand that they are really putting their lives out there."

MFRI Director Steven T. Edwards said the hands-on experience is what the event is all about. "They get to see, touch and feel what firefighters do day in and day out and I think it gives them a good basis when they are working on a fire service issue to go back to," he said.

"If a FIRE Act grant comes through for a SCBA and they've actually worn one and understand what that means to a firefighter, I think that helps."

Most of the staffers have only been on Capitol Hill for a short time, but Webb pointed out the group is often comprised of some of the country's future leaders.

"An intern today, a chief-of-staff tomorrow," he said. "A lot of the folks who have gone through this training have gone on to take key positions in congressional offices."

Neil McKiernan, a legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. John Larson D-Conn., handles public safety legislation and noted the experience would allow him to get a hands-on feel for how things work.

"It gives us a better idea about what these guys do and what their needs are and allows us the chance to learn how what we do on Capitol Hill affects them," he said.

Joe Lowry, who is both a staffer for the House of Representatives Office of Emergency Planning and a volunteer firefighter with the Arlington County, Va. Fire Department, said the event means a lot to him.

"From a congressional staffer point of view, it's nice to get everyone out here to see how firefighters operate. It is a lot different than what they see on TV. From a firefighter point of view, it's nice to be able to talk to staffers and let them know what is important to us, that way they can write that into legislation and promote the grants."

Joseph Bastian, a staff assistant for U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown D-Fla., said he would take what he saw at the event back with him to D.C.

"I leave here with a good impression," he said. "And I will share that with my boss."

As far as how the training event translates to funding, Edwards said there is no direct correlation, but that through an increased understanding for how the fire service works, he's seen a positive change over the years. Webb said the training allows staffers to better understand the legislation when it comes through.

Mitchell Murray, a staffer for Rep. Brian Bilbray R-Calif., said that's why event such as this one are so important. "I think it's always hard to be able to read and comprehend exactly what the implications are going to be (for a piece of legislation); so just having the first-hand experience helps."