The National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland has been forced to cancel 36 of the 89 firefighter training courses scheduled between May and September 2003 due to budget cuts at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"FEMA and the USFA had to make some very tough decisions up at Emmitsburg," said Public Information Coordinator Tom Olshanski. "The decision was made to cancel 36 courses between May and the end of September. The important thing here to remember is there are 53 courses still going on."
Olshanski said FEMA, which became part of the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003, was asked to reduce its budget by 11 percent. "This is agency wide, not pointed at the NFA or USFA," he said. Olshanski said he was not aware what other programs have been cut because they are less visible than the training academy cuts.
"This is around 1,000 students that aren't going to be able to experience Emmitsburg. There are disappointed firefighters out there. But we're doing this so that we can continue doing what we do," Olshanski said. He said this cost cutting measure should be temporary and that he fully expects the academy to offer its full load of courses in the future.
Dr. James G. Munger, who has been an instructor at the academy for 18 years, was notified on April 11 that a course he was scheduled to teach in May has been cancelled. He said the decision of the Department of Homeland Security to cut firefighter training makes little sense, considering that it's goal is to protect the nation's infrastructure. "That's what firefighters do every day," he said.
"Our mission is to be the premier training facility for the fire service," Munger said. "My reaction from the National Fire Academy standpoint was that, if in fact you have to make the cuts, there are other things within the USFA that while they may be valuable, would have less of a priority."
The cancelled classes represent 40 percent of the classes planned for that time period, Munger said. "These are training opportunities that once lost will never be recovered," he said. He said the class subjects appear to have been hit across the board, including one of the most in-demand classes, "Fire Inspection Principles."
Munger said another instructor at the academy, who is also a public school administrator, gave him the best analogy he has heard for this situation. "If they tell me I have to lose 11 percent, I lose things like football and band, not reading, writing and arithmetic," Munger said. "But that's what they did. They went straight to the core of what FEMA is all about."
For the approximately 1,000 students who were enrolled in the cancelled classes, these cuts may cause logistical problems as well as lost training opportunities. Many may have already scheduled several weeks of time off from work for the duration of a class, and some may have already purchased airline tickets, although they should be able to get reimbursed, Munger said. "...Which raises the question how much are we really saving," he joked.
Munger said there are also concerns that this might be just the beginning of many cuts and changes at the National Fire Academy. "From what I'm piecing together from people, there is more concern about the future of the NFA as we know it than ever before," he said.
"The bottom line for the fire service is to step up to the plate as they have in the past and contact their congressional delegation," he said. The NFA Alumni Association and NFA Instructors Association have already sent out bulletins to their members.
Olshanski denied any rumors that the academy will be the target of additional cuts or even be phased out. "Absolutely not, this was agency wide," he said.
Although many people are concerned about the cuts, Olshanski said their opinions don't change the fact that FEMA needs to cut 11 percent of its budget. He pointed out all of the projects that are intact such as the $750 million grant program, for which the peer review process starts next Monday, April 21. "That process is going on and we hope to have the first announcements by late May or early June," he said.
Olshanski added that despite the academy training cuts, there is still other training going on through online courses or training received through the FIRE Act grant program.