A burning question is firing up some members of Congress this session and an answer may be coming soon. Can the fire service hold on to the FIRE Act and its unique benefits directed straight to fire departments?
Or will a Senate proposal, backed by the Bush Administration, move the program into the hands of those responsible for preparing the United States for acts of terrorism?
Congressional Fire Caucus Chairman Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and several caucus members have written a letter to leadership in the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Homeland Security asking them to keep the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program (FIRE Act) in the hands of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, Department of HS, under which the US Fire Administration functions.
The Senate and House passed differing HS appropriations bills and now sit in conference trying to come up with one they agree on. The problem for the Fire Caucus is that the Senate bill moved the FIRE Act Grant program under the control of the Office for Domestic Preparedness.
"ODP, which runs a block grant program for the states, has little experience administering a merit-based program like the FIRE Act Grant program. In addition, ODP focuses on anti-terrorism efforts, and has no experience in addressing the basic needs of firefighters - precisely what Congress intended for FIRE Act Grant program to accomplish," the letter reads.
The fear is that the purpose of the money in the program will change from supplying basic firehouse needs to supporting the global war on terrorism. Sometimes the two purposes can be the same such as spending money solving first responder communications problems. But it may not involve replacing worn out bunker gear, an issue that many give a high priority.
And will those concerned with fighting terrorism and who are facing budgets lacking funding for all they want, be willing to consider the needs of a small department in Wyoming that may never face a threat from international terrorists?
At the International Association of Fire Chiefs conference in Dallas in August, R. David Paulison, Administrator for USFA and Director for Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security said the Bush administration is looking for "one stop shopping for grants." Paulison said regardless of where the grant program ends up, his efforts would continue providing for the fire service and their continuing needs.
Also speaking at the conference, Mike Brown, Deputy Under Secretary of Homeland Security and former FEMA director, said, "I get it. I know who the first, First Responders are." And he pledged the fire service has his unwavering support. "The name did not go away," he said referring to FEMA. He said FEMA will not change from its all-hazards approach, and that the fire service was an integral part of the development of that approach.
The letter closes with, "However, we strongly oppose any major programmatic changes to the program without a thorough review and subsequent legislative changes by the appropriate authorizing committees of jurisdiction which oversee the program."
The conference committee will have to report a bill out soon. Congress has until September 30 to finish appropriation bills and send them to the White House for the President's signature.
Signing the letter in addition to McCain (R-AZ) were Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), Mike DeWine (R-OH), Joe Biden (D-DE), and John W. Warner (R-VA). Representatives Curt Weldon (R-PA), Robert E Andrews (D-NJ), Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Nick Smith (R-MI), Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ).