Put a Fire Chief In the DHS Inner Circle

Jan. 1, 2005
Regardless of who the new Secretary of Homeland Security may be, the time is long overdue for a fire chief to be appointed to the rank of under secretary. At the very least a senior fire officer should be an influential advisor at the top level of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and part of the inner circle that surrounds the secrecy. This is a small group of powerful aides who shape policies and make decisions that often have a direct impact on local fire departments.

Having a fire chief at the upper-executive level would ensure that the voice of the fire-rescue service could be heard before critical decisions are made. It is the only way there can be meaningful input from the firefighters and emergency medical personnel who have first-hand experience and are responsible for saving lives in every type of disaster, including acts of terrorism. They risk their own lives doing it and they’ve earned the right to have one of their leaders occupy a chair at the decision-making table – along with the academics, bureaucrats, politicians, and ex-military and police officers who have controlled the DHS upper management from the very beginning. If a former police commissioner can be nominated to be the secretary, why can’t a fire chief be appointed to one of the other top positions?

As it turns out, the nomination of Bernard B. Kerik, the ex-New York City police commissioner, was a disaster for Kerik and the Bush administration. He had been an NYPD detective assigned to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s security detail. Giuliani eventually made him head of the Corrections Department, then police commissioner, where he came to the attention of President George Bush at the World Trade Center attack. Following his retirement from the department, Kerik joined Giuliani’s consulting firm and campaigned for Bush’s re-election. This led to his being nominated to replace Tom Ridge, who resigned as the first DHS Secretary. But the nomination ran into trouble when stories began to surface about alleged conflicts of interest, personal issues and a household employee who had an immigration problem. Kerik wisely withdrew his name rather than face a nasty confirmation fight.

Many presidents have had at least one cabinet nominee drop out after a background check revealed embarrassing information. Just because Kerik had a problem, it doesn’t mean that nominating a top cop to head DHS was a bad idea. But whoever the Secretary of Homeland Security may be, it’s still a good idea to have a fire chief at his (or her) side. Who is better qualified to explain problems that are facing firefighters? When the DHS brain trust meets to discuss an issue or draw plans to deal with the terrorist threat, an experienced fire chief should be part of that meeting rather than waiting around like a third-level manager who merely follows orders.

The highest-ranking fire officer in the federal service is R. David Paulison, administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and former chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue. Until last month, the fire administrator also was director of the Preparedness Division within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But that division was separated from USFA in what’s being called a “realignment” move and, as it stands today, the Fire Administration has hardly any role in preparing the nation’s response to terrorism.

Does this make sense? Why weaken the role of the fire administrator at a time when it should be strengthened? Why is this “realignment” being carried out in the transition period when one DHS Secretary is going out of office and another is coming in? Everyone I ask tells me it had been planned for a long time and is aimed at consolidating all of the state and local preparedness programs in one place. They say it was not intended to downgrade the Fire Administration, but that’s what it does and I get a feeling that some people are trying to convince me that the sun rises in the west.

As this is written, we don’t know who President Bush will nominate to be the new Secretary of Homeland Security. Whoever it is, we hope that he and the White House will consider a fire chief for one of the under-secretary positions, or in some capacity that gives the fire-rescue service a voice that will be heard and heeded – just like the police, the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Customs, Immigration, Border Patrol and all the other DHS components.

The confirmation hearing would be a good place for senators to ask the nominee if he or she would consider a fire chief for an under secretary’s job, or upgrade the role of the U.S. Fire Administration? And, from the start, the new secretary has to understand that local fire departments are the only agency that can respond in time to save lives in any disaster that occurs on land – whether it’s a fire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake or terrorist attack.

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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