Another Close Call For The FIRE Act

May 1, 2003
It's time for another update on the latest attempt to sabotage the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (FIRE Act), which has a history of close calls that constantly threaten to wipe it out. Each one has required a determined rescue effort by the fire service organizations and their Congressional supporters, who have become the legislative version of a Rapid Intervention Team. Their latest save worked, but it's also a warning of more trouble ahead.

It occurred in early March, about the time the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began accepting applications from fire departments competing for this year's $750 million in FIRE Act grants. Apparently, some clever bureaucrats inside the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) hatched a scheme to take $500 million in FIRE Act money and transfer it to Homeland Security's Office of Domestic Preparedness. From there, it would be distributed to the states for response to terrorism, leaving FEMA with only $250 million for direct grants to local fire departments.

In effect, two-thirds of the FIRE Act would be taken away in a convoluted budget maneuver that ignored the wishes of the fire service and defied the intent of Congress. Instead of being handled by the agency that had successfully administered the program, it would have been switched to an agency that is primarily oriented to the police and has no experience in evaluating and awarding the FIRE Act grants. It's also doubtful that much money would ever trickle down from the state level to local fire companies.

Fortunately, the fire organizations got wind of the plot and alerted their allies in Congress. With the chiefs, the union and the volunteers united and standing together on this issue, there was an immediate response from members of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, who have become strong advocates for the fire-rescue service.

This time the charge was led by Rep. Jim Walsh (R-NY), who was chairman of the subcommittee that funded this year's FIRE Act. He also was a member of the House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the $750 million appropriation. Wisely anticipating the possibility of trouble, Walsh had specific language written into the conference report, which read: "The conferees have agreed to establish this new appropriation for firefighter assistance grants so there will be no doubt as to the importance of this program and to protect this program from being lost in the morass of the Department of Homeland Security."

"Lost in the morass" was about to happen when the alarm sounded. Walsh and his colleagues made it clear to OMB, the White House and Homeland Security that they wanted every penny of the FIRE Act funds to stay with the original grant program and not be diverted for any other purpose. Inside the Homeland Security Department, U.S. Fire Administrator R. David Paulison, who had just become FEMA's interim chief operating officer, forcefully presented the case to maintain the FIRE Act as a separate grant program. He was supported by Joe M. Allbaugh, the former FEMA director, and Tom Ridge, the secretary of Homeland Security. Before it was over, even President Bush had become aware of the problem and let it be known that he didn't want any tampering with the FIRE Act.

It was a powerful and effective rapid intervention effort. OMB quickly got the message and backed down. Once again the FIRE Act was saved and FEMA is processing the thousands of grant applications received from fire departments across the country. Deservedly, Congressman Walsh was honored as "Legislator of the Year" by the Congressional Fire Services Institute at last month's annual dinner.

But it's not over yet. OMB still has in irrational and unexplained hostility toward the FIRE Act and the fire-rescue service. This was merely the latest skirmish in what has become a running battle and you can be sure they'll find a way to strike again. Congress is now working on the 2004 budget, which includes only $500 million of the $900 million that was authorized for next year's FIRE Act. By now, it should be obvious that any federal aid that strengthens fire departments has to increase their ability to deal with acts of terrorism.

While the FIRE Act is not limited to being an anti-terrorist program, it is a first responder program that helps firefighters prepare for every type of emergency, including terrorist attacks. But, it doesn't go far enough and everyone knows that the fire-rescue service needs massive amounts of federal help to defend against terrorism. And, it will have to come through the Department of Homeland Security. For now, all they have is the FIRE Act and it makes no sense for OMB to be hacking away at the only program that is in place and actually working.

That is why a Rapid Intervention Team has to stand by on Capitol Hill.

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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