What's Ahead in Washington For the Fire-Rescue Service?

Dec. 1, 2004

It's the month after a national election and in Washington that means it's time for wild speculation on who's staying, who's going and who's coming in. It's not as big an upheaval as it would have been if control of the White House had switched parties, but even with the Republicans re-electing President Bush and increasing their strength in Congress, there still are going to be some major changes within the administration and the congressional power structure. As this is written, there have been six cabinet resignations and more are expected.

Of greatest concern to the fire-rescue service is what happens at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the super-agency responsible for the nation's response to terrorism and the federal fire programs. With 170,000 employees, this huge bureaucracy is only 21 months old and has had its share of growing pains and internal power struggles. Inevitably, a new cabinet-level department has to go through a rough shake-out period and several reorganizations before it gains a firm footing to carry out its mission. DHS has had to do it under tremendous pressure generated by the urgency of the war on terrorism.

For several months, the Washington rumor mill has been reporting that DHS Secretary Tom Ridge wants to step down and return to private life, which has touched off speculation as to who his successor might be. There have been times when this column and the fire service have been critical of DHS policies, but through it all, everyone has learned to respect Tom Ridge. He deserves credit for getting DHS off the ground and pulling together its widely scattered elements. Ridge has supported most of the fire programs and even when there have been disagreements over DHS policies, he has remained a friend and supporter of the fire service.

There also are unconfirmed reports that Michael Brown, the under secretary for Emergency Preparedness & Response - which includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Academy - might take a new assignment. That, in turn, leads to speculation about the roles that FEMA, USFA and the Fire Academy will play in a reorganized Homeland Security department. The Fire Administration has taken a sharp budget cut this year, but we're told that the White House thinks highly of Chief David Paulison, the USFA administrator and the highest-ranking fire officer in the federal government. The Bush administration never liked the FIRE Act grants, but they've been impressed by the way FEMA and USFA have run a successful program while holding administrative costs down to 2% - which is unheard of in Washington.

For now, FEMA has been relegated to dealing with non-terrorist, natural disasters while most of the power, money and programs for the response to terrorism have been grabbed by the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP), which is described as the "big beast" inside Homeland Security. To the best of our knowledge, it does not include anyone with any fire experience. This is exactly what the fire service feared would happen when the original DHS organizational plan was altered by a few senators, their staffs, the cops and ex-Justice Department officials who wanted ODP to control the funds and programs for all first responders.

Thanks to the fire organizations and their friends in Congress, the FIRE Act grants have survived as a separate program to provide federal funds to help fire departments take care of basic needs. The outgoing Congress appropriated $650 million for this year's program, which is a lot less than the $900 million that was authorized, but more than the $500 million the Bush administration proposed. Congress also wants it to be administered by FEMA and USFA as it has been in the past, with matching grants going directly from Washington to the local fire departments and no involvement with state government.

Surprisingly, Congress in its closing days also appropriated $65 million for the SAFER Act to hire more firefighters. This was far short of the $1 billion originally authorized for the program's first year and a compromise between a $100 million appropriation passed by the Senate and $50 million in the House. However, it's a lot more than the White House wanted - which was zero. They just don't like the idea of using federal funds to pay the salaries of local firefighters. That $65 million isn't going to make much of a dent when it's spread around the entire country, but it's a start and hopefully will bring some relief to fire departments that are desperately under staffed.

As a result of the election, the Republicans have increased their hold on both the House and the Senate. Perhaps the most immediate goal for the fire service is to quickly get to know the newly elected members and sign them up for the Congressional Fire Service Caucus. Once again, Congress has become the legislative version of a rapid intervention team, standing by to step in and save the federal fire programs at the first sign of trouble.

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.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!