"I'm honored to be your President and I'm honored to be a proud backer of the Crawford, Texas Volunteer Fire Department." With that opening, President George W. Bush got a standing ovation speaking to the 14th Annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner, presented by the Congressional Fire Services Institute in Washington, D.C. Thursday, April 18.
Following a shout from the audience, he said, "I was hoping someone would be here from the Crawford Volunteer Fire Department. It's a long drive from Crawford. Thanks for coming."
The theme for this year's dinner, "Protecting Our Nation," reflected on the events of September 11 and the heroic role our nation's first responders played. The Pledge of Allegiance was led by the Chiefs of the lead fire departments at ground-zero of the September 11 incidents; Volunteer Fire Chief Terry Schaffer of Shanksville, PA, FDNY Chief Daniel Nigro, Arlington County, VA Fire Chief Edward Plaugher. The flag hanging behind the head table of speakers at the front of the ballroom had flown over the Pentagon on that tragic day.
Over 2000 members took part in the day of workshops and seminars. The packed ballroom of the Washington Hilton and Towers for the evening dinner was hushed while the President spoke. "Yours is one of the highest callings in our country, and one of the hardest. Your neighborhoods depend on you and so does your country. And you never let us down."
"Yet we know there will always be fires and someone will have to face the flames. America will always be dependent on people for that work. There is no substitute for the raw courage of the firefighter."
The President received a standing ovation when he mentioned the $3.5 billion Homeland Security budget proposal for the nation's first responders. "We must prepare our country for whatever emergency may come and commit new resources to train and equip our firefighters and police and EMS crews all around the country," he said.
President Bush recognized the family of FDNY Chief Ray Downey who he called "the bravest of the brave, a fireman's fireman." He noted that he had just signed legislation naming a post office in Deer Park, New York as the Raymond M. Downey Post Office Building. "It was done to make sure that our country does not forget the sacrifices of that day and the valor of those who make them."
Deputy Chief of the Fire Department of New York, Downey was given posthumously the CFSI/Mason Lankford Fire Service Leadership Award. Chief Downey died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. His sons, Captain Joe Downey and Lt. Chuck Downey, along with son Ray Jr., daughters Kathy and Marie and wife Rosalie, accepted the award.
In introducing the award, Congressional Fire Caucus founder Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA) said, "You want to talk about heroes. You want to talk about people that we should all look up to. You want to talk about someone who lived his life as a role model, and who went to work everyday knowing full well that he had five kids and grandkids and a lovely supportive wife. He cared deeply about his people."
The most decorated firefighter in the history of the New York Fire Department Downey was credited with saving thousands of people within the towers September 11. In accepting the award, his son said, "His life was dedicated to his family and the fire service -- He once said the fire department would have to kick him out before he was ready to retire."
He went on to say, "We stand here before you with broken hearts because of that day. However it helps to get through these days with you recognizing Ray Downey with this award. His life was an inspiration to many. His accomplishments a true testimony to his character. We continue to be amazed and proud to see how many lives he has touched in this country and throughout the world."