Chertoff Must Face Up To Fire Service’s Frustration

March 1, 2005

As expected, Judge Michael Chertoff made it through his Senate confirmation hearing to become the second Secretary of Homeland Security. Now he has to take control of the gigantic federal agency that is supposed to be leading the war on terrorism, but at times seems to be at war with itself. In just two years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has become a bureaucratic battleground in which 22 formerly separate agencies are fighting to protect their turf while grabbing for their share of the money and the power. Thus far, it has been a battle in which the fire-rescue service has a vital interest – but no voice and no influence.

There is hope that this will change under Chertoff’s direction, though fire service observers were disappointed when the Senate hearing failed to ask a single question about issues that concern the nation’s firefighters. Questions had been submitted in advance to committee members, but the senators never got around to asking him about the need for a fire chief to be included in the top level of DHS planning, or why the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Academy have diminished roles in preparing fire departments for their response to acts of terrorism.

Not surprisingly, the Senate questioning focused on Chertoff’s performance as an assistant attorney general before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and his views about immigration policy, civil rights, intelligence gathering, etc. Surely, there could have been one or two questions pertaining to the needs of first responders. We’re told that the fire service questions were submitted to Chertoff’s staff in writing and that some answers may be forthcoming. It would be better if the Secretary met with fire service leaders to explain his views and listen to their concerns. If it ever happens, it would be smart if the fire leaders could agree ahead of time on the points they want to make and it would be amazing if their recommendations actually were implemented. Too often in the past, bad decisions already were made when DHS went through the motions of seeking advice from the fire service. No matter how good it might be, contrary advice was not wanted and not heeded.

Maybe that will change. Word has filtered back that Chertoff has said he needs to have an official in his top management who comes from the fire service and can be a point of contact for first responders. But the fire service needs more than a “point of contact.” Why not elevate the USFA administrator to that position and give him a genuine role in planning and policy making? Or, create a senior staff position that must be filled with a fire chief.

As is stands today, the USFA has hardly any role in preparing for the response to terrorism. The National Fire Academy’s courses have been curtailed by budget cuts as money and programs have flowed to the DHS Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP). However, in the DHS budget that came out last month, there’s a $1.3 million increase for USFA, bringing it up to $52 million, with $9.6 million going to the academy. But don’t count on it. The way the game is played these days, DHS takes the money back whenever it wants funds for other programs; last year, the academy lost about $7 million in “take backs.”

(In other budget news, the Bush administration once again proposed $500 million for the FIRE Act grants, which is far less than authorized. Last year, Congress added money to give the FIRE Act $650 million. The Bush budget does not have any money for the SAFER program to help cities hire more firefighters, which was worth $65 million last year.)

One thing the Secretary should know is that the fire service doesn’t trust ODP, which administers the programs that affect first responders. No one at ODP has any fire-rescue experience and, at times, their arrogance in dealing with the fire service has been intolerable. They refuse to recognize state and local fire training centers to teach advanced first-responder courses and insist that everything must go through their approved contractors – even though the state and local facilities have higher standards for instructors and have trained 800,000 firefighters. ODP is wasting time and money by reinventing the wheel.

A sign of the fire service’s frustration is a bill drafted by the Northeastern States Fire Consortium that calls for Congress to create a separate DHS Directorate for Fire and Emergency Services to be headed by an undersecretary and include the USFA and the academy. It may not have much chance of passing, but these are the same people who pushed for the original FIRE Act when everyone said it couldn’t be done.

It comes down to this: the fire service leadership wants to work with Secretary Chertoff to solve these and other problems, but he’s starting out with a lot of unhappy firefighters who aren’t getting the help they need.

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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