Fire Service Bills Caught in Congressional Crossfire

Dec. 1, 2005

Partisan strife and bitterness have reached a high pitch as this session of Congress enters its final days. It is affecting every piece of legislation, including several bills of great concern to the fire-rescue service. Even a bill with support from both parties runs into roadblocks as Republicans and Democrats squabble over issues that they think will give them an advantage in next year's midterm elections. The result is an agonizing, slow process in which legislation often is tied up in committees and held hostage in a game of hardball political warfare.

Last month, for example, we reported that Congress finally was ready to pass a bill that would double the 700 MHz spectrum for public safety radio. The chaos in emergency communications during the Gulf Coast hurricanes had given a new sense of urgency to an issue that has been kicking around for more than eight years. We were told that the House and Senate were determined to work out their differences and vote in favor of the bill before adjourning for their Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays.

Unfortunately, as this is written, the spectrum bill remains snared in a larger battle over reconciling the federal budget and it's unclear as to when Congress will adjourn for the holidays. The parties still are far apart on fixing a date in 2008 or 2009 when commercial television will have to switch from analog to digital transmission and thereby clear the 700 MHz channels for fire, police and other emergency services. Also unresolved is the amount of money the federal government will put up to subsidize the cost of converter boxes. The Senate version calls for $3 billion; the House proposes $1 billion.

The spectrum bill is only one of many that are caught in an overloaded legislative agenda that has become a battleground for next year's elections. The Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, which would provide federal tax breaks for property owners who retrofit their buildings with automatic sprinkler systems, also is caught in the trap. It is bogged down in the Senate Finance and the House Ways & Means committees, despite having support from both sides of the aisle. As previously reported, it would allow property owners to amortize the cost of sprinklers over a period of 5 years instead of the current 27 years for residential property and 39 years for commercial and industrial property. If passed, it would provide a major incentive to retrofit older buildings with sprinklers and help local jurisdictions pass tougher codes that include existing buildings. It could be the beginning of the end for those rotten grandfather clauses that weaken sprinkler laws by excluding existing buildings.

However, tax bills have to be "scored" to determine how much revenue would be gained or lost. In the case of the Sprinkler Act, the scoring showed a revenue loss of approximately $2 billion over a period of 10 years, or an average of $200 million a year. The bill's supporters point out that it would save millions of dollars in wages and tax revenue that are lost when buildings are destroyed by fire. There's no way of measuring the number of lives that would be saved by sprinklers, but we know that thousands have been lost in buildings that didn't have sprinklers because they were excluded by grandfather clauses.

The appropriation bills covering homeland security were passed by Congress and signed by the President in October. Included in that package was $545 million for the FIRE Act grants, which is less than Congress originally authorized, but more than the Bush administration proposed. The Department of Homeland Security's state grant program was cut from $1 billion to $550 million and the urban area security initiative program was trimmed from $885 million to $765 million. Given the poisonous atmosphere on Capitol Hill, you have to feel lucky that anything got through.

To our knowledge, no one is taking deliberate aim at the fire service bills; it's more a case of being caught in the crossfire swirling around them. It's not only Republicans and Democrats fighting as they usually do; it's also conservative and moderate Republicans picking fights with each other over a variety of issues, ranging from the war in Iraq to budget cuts and Supreme Court appointments. The House and Senate leadership in both parties seems unable to invoke any discipline to get things moving.

Hopefully, as this first session of the 109th Congress draws to a close, there will be a breakthrough and the key fire service bills will make it out of committees and get to a floor vote, where the chances of being passed are fairly good. It is a long, hard struggle, but it's worth the effort, for this is legislation that affects every firefighter and the people they protect.

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.

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