What I Learned During My Class Trip to Washington, DC

April 11, 2005
It would seem to me that spring has finally sprung. The weather is nice, the temperature is moving up into the 60's and the longer days are now with us. We have also witnessed the beginning of the spring season for school trips to our nation's capitol. Countess busses will carry untold thousands of our youngest citizens to see the wonders of our nation's capitol, Washington, DC.

Memories of my own 8th grade trip back in 1961 still come into my mind's eye each time I see the Washington Monument and a number of other historic venues. My friends, I have just returned from the adult equivalent of a class trip to our nation's capitol. Last week was that very special week when fire folks from around the nation journeyed to the Washington, DC to pay homage to the people who control the great federal purse strings in the sky.

We roamed through the halls of power and were exposed to a wide array of interesting informational seminars. Friendships from around the country were renewed, and some new friendships began. I got to meet some really neat people, like the gang from Chandler, Arizona and the gentleman from Bedford, Virginia who pledged undying love for my commentaries. Thank you.

Then there was the fire service caucus dinner itself. This my friends was the 17th annual edition of this pilgrimage to the seat of our nation's political power, Who among us could fail to be dazzled by a ballroom filled with thousands of people committed to one key fire service task -- political butt-smooching. Believe me when I say that I love it my friends. I revel in it. God help me, I love it. However, I digress.

This year it was my feeling that a different approach to Washington was needed. Normally I gather with all of my fellow fire service riflemen at the bottom of the enemy hill, and then when the order comes to charge we all fix bayonets and sally forth to storm the enemy ramparts. Not this year. A new way of doing business was needed.

It was different this time around. Based upon the advice of a number of key associates, I attended all festivities in the stealth mode. Now I know that none of you can picture me sneaking around with a trench coat, a wide-brimmed hat, and a tape recorder, so I just did it my way. It was my choice to approach the entire operation with a closed mouth and an open mind.

This year's soiree to the seat of power was a combination of an 8th grade class trip and an intelligence mission behind enemy lines. In order to widen my perspective, I made this journey with my trusty sidekick Jack Peltier and his boss Tom McGowan from the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.

Our mission was to listen, and that we did. Additionally, our mission was to record what we heard. That we did too. Between the three of us we gathered more than 20 pages of notes. When you add to that the notes scribbled on the paper tablecloth at the Old Glory Rib House and my small pocket notebook, you have the makings of a pretty neat report. My team chose me to be the group leader. So here, my friends, is what we learned on our class trip to Washington, DC.

Sadly, there are some cracks in the great wall of resolve in the American Fire Service. However, I heard a number of comments made by various speakers which told me that truth and straight-shooting are still alive in this world. Unfortunately, these comments also told me that there is some trouble in River City.

Some of the most surprising of these comments addressed one of the open, dirty, little secrets in the fire service. Someone finally stood up in a public venue and spoke of the International Association of Firefighter's campaign against the volunteer fire service.

Frankly my friends, I think it is time that someone called the union on their strong-arm tactics. If I hear one more die-hard union person tell me that I am taking a union person's job by volunteering, I will scream. Before you think that I, as a former union member, am acting like an ingrate, let me set the record straight.

It is my fervent belief that unions have a critical place in the world around us. If you don't believe this, just ask someone in a right-to-work state about the importance of unions. My union in Newark, Local 1860 IAFF has done an excellent job as an advocate for their members. Our salary and benefits were first-rate when I worked with the city and they are even better now. The same holds true with their battle for matters of health and safety.

Those are the critical tasks that unions were formed to perform for their members. However, I will be damned if I am going tolerate them dictating the terms of life to any of my fellow citizens, just because they belong to a union. Like many of my fellow firefighters, I served my country in time of war. We all were sworn to protect the rights of our fellow citizens.

That means the right to organize in unions if we choose, as well as the right to volunteer our time during our off-duty hours if that is what we choose to do. Who in the heck is the union to tell their people how to live their off-duty lives? There will be more on this later. I expect to be the target of some abuse on this issue. So be it. My union president in Newark always knew where I stood on this issue.

Frankly I think that it is time that the General President of the IAFF shows up at the caucus dinner. His absence sends a clear message to those who care to look that there is no single voice or agenda coming from the fire service. In fact that point was brought forward by more than one speaker during our time in Washington. I can remember shaking hands with Al Whitehead, on a number of occasions. While he did not always look happy, he was there at the dinner.

Congressman Curt Weldon moved on to raise the sword of battle against the Justice Department on the issue of the Chris Kanga's line-of-duty-death matter. Chris, you may recall, was the junior firefighter who was killed by a motorist as he rode his bike to a fire call in Pennsylvania. I think it was really neat that Mr. Weldon spoke so stridently against the justice department, given the presence of a top justice department official at the dinner. I hope that the justice official spoke the same language as Curt, because the message was simple, direct, and clear, and delivered in English.

Kangas' family was denied LODD benefits, and Chris is not listed among our honored dead at the monument in Emmitsburg. Congressman Weldon asked us all to contact our senators and representatives on this issue. I sensed a great deal of animosity and discord regarding this issue. Let us all work to keep this argument under control.

My daughter was a junior firefighter here in Adelphia. I am well aware of what our people are allowed to do. I am also well-aware of what a firefighter is and does. That denial of benefits is a travesty of the first rank, and must be addressed. Congressman Weldon has introduced legislation to do precisely that.

Congressman Weldon asked us to ponder the issue of the Justice Department deciding who is and who is not a firefighter. Not only do I agree with him, but I say let the justice department worry about defining the parameters of membership in police departments and let us call the shots in our field of endeavor.

I listened eagerly as Michael Chertoff, the new Secretary of Homeland Security spoke to the assembled throng at the caucus dinner. He spoke on a number of issues critical to us all.

  • He announced that the DHS was going to support the emergency service position on retain the current system of hazardous materials placarding. I commend him for listening to the arguments put forward by the emergency service community.
  • He told us that he wanted to hear what the fire service had to say.
  • He told us that he is willing to listen.
Secretary Chertoff told us to "watch not what I say but what I do." OK Mr. Secretary, I am going to watch. He went on to close his remarks to us at the dinner with the following statement: "I'm going to get out in the field. I look forward to seeing some of you in firehouses or in stations to see and hear from you directly how it is that you do your jobs and what it is you need for us to do, because you are the front line of our response and our rescue when we face our time of greatest need."

I would cordially invite the Secretary to visit my fire company here in Adelphia, New Jersey. Once he sees how we do our job in the suburbs, I would invite him to move north to Newark and see how my brother and the gang do their jobs in the urban environment.

Let him move west across our great land and stop off at Raul Anguilo's station in Seattle. Let him move back east and stop by Jeff Buenger's station in Wisconsin, and while he is in the Midwest, let him stop by and see Steve White in Fishers, Indiana. Another good place to visit is at Pat McGinley's department in rural Ripley, West Virginia, and I am sure that John Eversole could arrange one of his famous Chicago tours. These are just a sampling of the thousands of places that he could visit. I look forward to see just how he keeps his word to us all.

Congressman Sherwood Boehlert said it best at the caucus dinner when he told the assembled throng that, "the fire service must have a voice in the policy arena at the Department of Homeland Security." He ringing comments were met by an extremely strong round of applause, last with screams, whistles, and a variety of sounds indicating the crowd's approval. From Boehlert's lips to God's ear my friends.

Lest you think that all of our time was spent in back-slapping and hand-shaking drills, there was much more than politics going on in Washington. There was a free and open exchange of ideas between fire service contemporaries. There were also some really neat discussions with folks from the world of technology.

There was a man who told me that he wants to create a system that will allow computers in buildings to talk to the computers used by our fire departments. Imagine an incident commander being able to know the temperature of the structural supports on the upper floors of a high-rise building.

Using simple technology tied together in new ways, he suggests that the building will be able to tell us how hot it is, how much water is flowing from sprinkler heads, and a whole host of other bits of data which could tell us whether to send firefighters into burning buildings or not. I was impressed.

Another friend told me of a plan to create a hand-held computer game system that would allow firefighters to practice strategic and tactical skills in the same way that we play games on our Gameboys

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