Guest Commentary: A Successful Gathering with a Straightforward Call for a Unified Voice

On April 5 and 6, 2006, more than 2,100 members of the fire and emergency services converged on Washington, DC to attend the 18th annual Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) seminars and dinner. The theme this year was "Leadership Saves Lives...So Everyone Goes Home." The 2006 events were perhaps the best attended and most successful in the history of the CFSI. It provided many opportunities to learn, network, visit with members of Congress and their professional staffs, as well as meet with federal agency officials.

The event also presented the opportunity to deliver a straightforward message to all attendees and members of the CFSI National Advisory Committee: "We must all work through our individual members of Congress and collectively through our various fire service organizations and the CFSI to deliver a consistent message. Fund the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), including the National Fire Academy (NFA), as well as the FIRE Act and SAFER grant programs, to their authorized levels."

The seminars get better each year, providing timely and professional updates from a talented and informed cadre of speakers on current national fire service issues. This year, the content covered important subjects that included the legislative process, firefighter health and wellness policies and initiatives, federal response to wildland/urban interface fires, panel discussions with members of Congress, the role of the American fire service, interoperable communications, federal funding for the fire service, prevention and public education national public policy issues, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation "Everyone Goes Home" program, National Incident Management System (NIMS) update, fire service research and development, and the Fire Corps program.

Following the seminars, attendees met with members of Congress and/or their staffs to interact and deliver the unified message concerning authorized funding levels for the USFA and NFA, the FIRE Act and SAFER. These seminars and congressional meetings provided a busy and exciting series of events leading up to the CFSI Dinner.

Those of us who have attended all (or many) of the previous CFSI dinners tend to take them somewhat for granted, and perhaps view the content as repetitive. However, I always make time to visit with new attendees to get their thoughts on the process. Invariably, they are impressed with the content and thrilled to have had the opportunity to be present. Many say it was the professional opportunity of their lifetime.

This year, the dinner featured an impressive cadre of speakers moderated again by Hal Bruno, including new FEMA Director R. David Paulison and members of Congress Rob Andrews, Joe Biden, Sherwood Boehlert, Mike DeWine, Jane Harman, Steny Hoyer, Paul Sarbanes and Curt Weldon.

Several awards were made to very deserving recipients:

• The CFSI Legislator(s) of the Year Award was presented to Congresswoman Jane Harman, Senator John McCain and Congressman Curt Weldon.

• The CFSI Fire Service Organization(s) of the Year Award was presented to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials (APCO) International.

• The CFSI/Motorola Mason Lankford National Fire Service Leadership Award was presented to Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council.

• The CFSI/Home Safety Council Safety Education Hero Award was presented to Peggy Harrell of the Plano, TX, Fire Department.

At the CFSI National Advisory Committee meeting on April 7, new National Advisory Committee officers were selected. Elected as the CFSI NAC chair was Richard Patrick of VFIS, and elected as vice chair was Kevin O’Connor of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). They can each serve a maximum of two one-year terms.

The Call for Unity

CFSI is focused on creating and maintaining the capability of the fire and emergency services to speak from a united position on important issues of common concern and interest. We all left the CFSI seminars, dinner, and NAC meeting with a clear understanding of our unified message. To repeat it once again, we must all work individually with our members of Congress, and collectively within our associations, to achieve authorized funding levels for the USFA and NFA, as well as the FIRE Act and SAFER grant programs. They are in jeopardy of significant reductions in funding, so I suggest we not hesitate in this effort.

In the summer of 2004, Firehouse® Magazine published an article I authored titled "I’m Confused." Following are excerpts from that article:

"...The fact is that the USFA’s role in DHS is minimized. If it stays that way, the USFA will become a shadow of its former self, and that includes the National Fire Academy."

"...There is significant support for the FIRE Act [and SAFER] in Congress, however, elsewhere at the federal level, I’m not sure I can say the same with any degree of confidence."

"...The FIRE Act [and SAFER] were never intended to be solely dedicated to terrorism. [They] were passed by fund basic needs relating to fire prevention, public education, equipment, apparatus, training, safety [research, staffing, and health and wellness]."

"...Maybe I’m a little paranoid, and maybe not. Maybe we’re all imagining this confusion and it’s really just the result of miscommunications, and maybe not. The fire service needs to be more watchful than ever before. Individually, we must ensure that the President and our members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate know how important the United States Fire Administration, the National Fire Academy, and the FIRE Act [and SAFER] are to us and to the nation. If we aren’t adequately supported by our elected officials and federal agencies, we cannot protect lives, the economy, or property in times of need. We’d better watch what’s going on in Washington, DC. Our supporters need for us to speak out in responsible, productive and coordinated ways so they can be of help to us."

This was true when I wrote that article in 2004, and little has changed since then. Concerns about the USFA and NFA experiencing budget reductions are legitimate concerns. Funding for the FIRE Act has decreased from $750 million in fiscal year 2004 to $545 million in fiscal year 2006, with $293 million proposed by the President for fiscal year 2007. The Bush administration has proposed to eliminate all SAFER funding in fiscal year 2007.

We must advocate that these critical fire service needs be funded to their authorized levels. That would result in annual appropriations of $67 million for the USFA and NFA, $900 million for the FIRE Act and $1 billion for SAFER. We all know the collective message I’ve discussed here. Now let’s proceed with a unified voice. There are other important issues facing the fire and emergency services at the national level, but if we lose on these three initiatives, our influence within (and support from) the federal government will be diminished. That will negatively impact everything else we’re trying to accomplish. The 2007 CFSI seminars and dinner are scheduled on March 28 and 29. I hope you plan to be there. In the meantime, let’s try to achieve the authorized levels of funding for the USFA and NFA, the FIRE Act and SAFER.

Each of you is important to the CFSI, and to the fire and emergency services in general, in achieving success and building influence at the federal level. However, we will not be successful if we fail to stay united or if our messages differ when they are communicated to Congress and federal officials. As in the past, we will all be the beneficiaries of the work we do and the goals we achieve, especially if we achieve them together.

Dennis Compton, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including the When In Doubt, Lead! series, Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, as well as many other articles and publications. He is also the co-editor of the current edition of the ICMA textbook Managing Fire and Rescue Services. He serves as a national executive advisor and advocate for the fire service, homeland security and other organizations. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and assistant fire chief in Phoenix, where he served for 27 years. He is past chair of the executive board of the International Fire Service Training Association, past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s National Advisory Committee, vice chair of the board of directors for the Home Safety Council and serves on the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation board of directors.