The National Fire Services Caucus was dealt a major blow Tuesday with the defeat of its founder, U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa.
The loss is especially tough right now, fire officials say, due to the decision of longtime advocate Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md. not to seek re-election.
Other caucus members not returning to Washington are U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., who retired; and Mike Dewine, R-Ohio, ousted in the election.
"The fire caucus has lost four very staunch supporters, especially Curt Weldon and Paul Sarbanes," said Hal Bruno, retired ABC News political analyst and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
Despite skepticism, Bruno said Weldon forged ahead with his idea to form a fire services caucus on Capitol Hill.
"He was just a young Congressman, and he stuck with his idea. He made it happen."
Without the caucus, the majority of the fire service-related legislation would not have been passed. "Curt's name is all over it...So much has been accomplished," said Bruno.
Weldon, a volunteer firefighter from Pennsylvania, made it his business to inform his colleagues in Washington about the issues important to the fire service.
"Curt Weldon is a special type of Congressman, one we haven't seen before, and may never see again," said Steve Austin, a veteran fire service official. "He didn't just represent only the firefighters in his district. He represented firefighters everywhere because he is one of us. Now we don't have that."
Austin said Weldon came through many times, especially when the FIRE Act and SAFER grants were on the chopping block.
Weldon also stepped in to help on local issues, said Ken Cox Sr., vice president of Washington, D.C. Firefighters Local 36. "Curt was a hands-on guy. He was never afraid to get involved. He was there if we needed him."
He also recalled many years ago when the Congressman used a fire extinguisher to control a blaze in an office until firefighters arrived.
"The buildings had no sprinklers, and there was stuff stored everywhere. It was dangerous. But, that's changed now. The buildings on Capitol Hill are safer because of Curt."
Cox said he's disappointed that firefighters in Weldon's district didn't support him. "He got them about $5 million in grants. So, he certainly brought home the bacon."
Bruno said the fire caucus still has strong advocates such as Steny Hoyer, D-Md. and Joe Biden, D-Del. However, he said the challenge will be educating new legislators about the issues.
"It's up to every firefighter to tell their representatives about the caucus, and the importance of getting involved," he said. "They have to insist that they be part of it."
Cultivating relationships on both sides of the aisle is the only way to be successful in Washington, Weldon used to tell firefighters, Austin said.
Legislators and their staffs will have the opportunity next week to don firefighter gear and go into training buildings at the Maryland Fire-Rescue Institute. They also may sign up to ride along with a crew in Washington, D.C., Fairfax or Arlington.
The events, coordinated by the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI), are always well-received, said Bill Webb, executive director.
"It's a great opportunity for them to learn about what a firefighter does," he said adding that he also encourages personnel to discuss issues such as training and funding. "What a great time to open a good dialogue."
Webb said the fire service across the country is in much better shape today on several fronts because of Weldon. "We enjoyed a unique relationship, one that was cultivated over many years."
And, he said he is confident that fire officials will heed Weldon's advice to court and educate as many people as possible about the issues.
Chief Billy Goldfeder said Weldon's absence will leave a huge gap. "You just can't beat what he's done on the hill for the fire service...He certainly knew the issues."