Misinformed Critics Threaten Future of FIRE Act Grants

July 1, 2006

The FIRE Act program has come under attack in the news media and in Congress by misinformed people who have no understanding of the serious health and safety problems facing the fire-rescue service. With one exception, no one in the Department of Homeland Security, which administers the program, has defended the grants and some have fueled the controversy by making misleading statements.

The main targets of critical newspaper, radio and television stories have been grants that were used to buy physical fitness equipment for firehouses and materials for children’s fire safety education programs. In reading the stories and transcripts, it becomes apparent that some reporters (and a few members of Congress) are confused and don’t know the difference between the smaller FIRE Act program and billions in anti-terrorism funds that DHS dispenses to the states to prepare for terrorist attacks and natural disasters. They are separate programs, yet these stories lump them together and erroneously conclude that federal money intended for the war on terrorism is being diverted to buy exercise machines for small-town fire departments!

Here are the facts that refute these phony stories: The FIRE Act was conceived long before the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led to the creation of DHS. It has been a modest program, intended to provide matching grants for “basic needs†that fire departments cannot get from their local governments. From the start, firefighter health and safety has been considered an important and legitimate use of this money, since more than half of the line-of-duty deaths (about 110 each year) are caused by heart attacks and strokes brought on by the stress of firefighting. There is nothing wrong with using FIRE Act funds to equip a physical fitness room in a firehouse; it can help save firefighters’ lives and does NOT take any money away from the war on terrorism. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, of which I am chairman, received a $1 million FIRE Act grant to carry out the “Everyone Goes Home†program aimed at reducing line-of-duty deaths.)

Also under attack have been education programs in which a firefighter may dress like a clown while teaching fire safety to children. Over the years, there have been countless news stories of children saving their own lives or the lives of playmates or family members by using “Stop, Drop and Roll†and other lessons they learned when a firefighter visited their school. The original legislation creating the FIRE Act requires that 5% of the funds must be used for these classes. What’s worse, a firefighter in a clown suit or a child in a hospital burn unit?

The real story to be told is that the FIRE Act has been one of the most successful federal aid programs, with little waste, low overhead and grants going directly to fire departments for a wide range of worthy projects. Physical fitness and fire safety education have been a small part of the program, which draws 20,000 applications a year. Yet, the only DHS official who has defended these programs has been FEMA Director R. David Paulison, a former fire chief who tried to explain to a television reporter why physical training can help save firefighters’ lives.

More typical has been the DHS spokesman who responded to a reporter’s question by saying, “The administration has not supported the funding for physical fitness equipment as part of the fire grant program…Physical fitness is an individual responsibility.†He’s wrong. Fire officers are responsible for the health and safety of their firefighters and his foolish statement reveals a total ignorance of the fire-rescue service and how it operates. Did he think of it himself or did someone tell him to say it? I can understand a misinformed reporter jumping on a cheap-shot story, but I wonder whether some DHS bureaucrats are trying to sabotage the FIRE Act.

Based on these stories, several bewildered members of Congress have expressed their concern about homeland security funds being misused. One actually proposed an amendment that would specifically prohibit FIRE Act grants from being used to buy exercise equipment or clown suits! Fortunately, firefighters in his home district, national fire organizations and some of his fellow congressmen convinced him that this was not a good issue to ride into the spotlight. He apologized and withdrew the amendment.

FIRE Act funding for the 2007 fiscal year has passed the House, with an appropriation of $543 million – $2 million less than this year’s budget, but $250 million more than the Bush administration wanted. Now it’s up to the Senate to pass its appropriation bill so that a joint conference committee can reconcile the two versions. The media attacks will continue, which means the fire-rescue service should be prepared to aggressively defend a successful program that has brought much-needed help to the nation’s firefighters and the communities 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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