Fire Service Waits For Congress To Help Prepare For Terrorism

This first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is a proper time to look back on what went wrong, what went right and how much progress has been made since Sept. 11, 2001. For the fire-rescue service, the vital question is whether local fire departments are better prepared to respond to acts of terrorism than they were a year ago. The plain-truth answer: not much.

The problem is that we've been in a holding pattern, waiting for Congress to pass the legislation that will create the Department of Homeland Security. Last month, the Republican-controlled House passed a version of the bill that is close to what President Bush asked for. It takes all or part of 22 federal agencies and moves them to a new cabinet-level office with 170,000 employees, a $37 billion budget, and tremendous power to coordinate and lead the nation's defense against terrorist attacks inside the United States.

But in the Senate, where the Democrats have control, there were objections to specific elements in the bill. The biggest stumbling block has been the President's plan to give the new department unprecedented flexibility in the hiring and firing, training and assigning of employees - which brought strong opposition from labor unions that represent federal workers. The Senate version also would give Homeland Security more authority over intelligence operations of the CIA, FBI and other agencies, which the White House opposes. As this is written, it's expected that the debate will be the Senate's first order of business when Congress returns from its August recess. Somehow, they will find a way to compromise, resolve the difference between the House and Senate versions, and pass a bill that the President can sign without further delay.

Once that happens, the Department of Homeland Security becomes a reality and, presumably, the $3.5 billion that is earmarked for grants to first responders will start to flow from the federal to the state levels, and from there trickle down to local fire departments. Exactly how much and how fast is uncertain at this time. For sure, a lot of money will go from Washington to the state capitals, where 25% will come off the top to be used by state government. Then it's up to the governors to divide the remaining 75% between fire, police and emergency medical services and distribute it to the local level. That's the catch that has the fire service worried; past experience has shown that firefighters usually get less than their fair share when state government controls the money or the police are competing for a share of the pot.

What's crucial in all of this is how "first responder" will be defined. A position paper issued by the Congressional Fire Services Institute and the seven major fire organizations calls for 90% of the funds to be delivered to local public safety agencies and that "heavy emphasis be placed on response times and exposure to risks" in determining who is a genuine first responder. To make sure this happens, they want fire chiefs to be included in the decision-making process when state fire officials allocate where the funds will go and how they'll be distributed. They also want state agencies to expedite the process and get the money to local fire departments with a minimum of delay and red tape.

If Congress succeeds in passing a Homeland Security bill by their target date of Sept. 11 - or anytime this month - it will be a major accomplishment that both parties will claim credit for when the members return home to campaign for re-election. It will be hailed as a shining example of bipartisan cooperation. However, the dark side of congressional action could be seen in the way they handled the emergency anti-terrorism appropriations aimed at helping local government this year. The bills were loaded with outrageous pork-barrel projects in the states and districts of powerful senior members - Democrats and Republicans alike - and most had little or nothing to do with the defense against terrorism. An extra $150 million for the FIRE Act was among the items that were lost when President Bush rejected the package of pork.

The full picture isn't clear, but as near as I can determine, no emergency federal aid has reached any fire department other than New York City, which had to replace apparatus and equipment destroyed at the World Trade Center. Thus far, all of the federal emergency funds going to other regions are being used to aid a wide range of local agencies, including hospitals and health facilities, public transportation systems and, of course, the police. But there has been nothing for firefighters and the only aid to fire departments has come from the FIRE Act. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will have distributed all of the $360 million in that program by the end of the year and it goes directly to the fire departments without having to pass through the state government bureaucracies. This is why the fire organizations are fighting to preserve the FIRE Act as a separate program and have it fully funded at the $900 million Congress authorized for the next two fiscal years.

There has been little or no help from state and local governments, which are reeling from the full impact of the nation's economic disaster. Tax revenues have taken a steep decline and everyone is facing huge budget deficits, thanks in part to the irresponsible tax cuts elected officials handed out to curry favor with the voters when times were good. Despite the lessons of Sept. 11, too many still see their fire department as a place to hold the line on spending, or worse yet, order more budget cuts.

Despite all of these problems and the lack of funding, many fire departments have managed to make some progress by reviewing and strengthening their incident command, mutual aid and mass-casualty disaster plans. There also has been more focus on additional training that is directly related to terrorism, especially the response to hazardous materials incidents. But most have gone as far as they can go on their own and the blunt truth is that the federal aid that was promised after Sept. 11 should have arrived months ago.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.