House tackles fire service bill
In April, the country watched in fascination as an Atlanta firefighter rescued a construction worker trapped on a high-rise crane that was about to be engulfed in flames. For days following the dramatic rescue, news programs across the country repeatedly showed the firefighter dangling from a helicopter and plucking the worker out of the sky. In times of crisis, firefighters are cities’ and counties’ first line of defense. Yet, during budget time, they are forgotten by the federal government. And local governments are having a difficult time finding the money to properly fund their fire departments.
This year, the federal government will spend just $32 million on fire prevention and training, compared to the $11 billion it has earmarked for law enforcement programs. But a bipartisan group of congressmen hopes to change that funding inadequacy by dramatically increasing federal assistance to both professional and volunteer fire departments.
Led by U.S. Rep. William Pascrell (D-N.J.), 139 congressmen – ranging from conservative Republican Howard Coble of North Carolina to liberal Democrat John Oliver of Massachusetts – are calling on their congressional colleagues to support the Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement Act (FIRE). If passed, the bill would pump $5 billion into the nation’s fire departments over the next five years.
Modeled after the COPS program that was created to put 100,000 community police officers on the nation’s streets, FIRE would provide grants to fire departments on a 90/10 matching basis. Cities and counties could use the money to hire more firefighters, purchase new equipment or conduct advanced training and education programs.
Pascrell, the former mayor of Paterson, N.J., says the federal government has “overlooked the other half of the public safety equation for too long. These [p eople] are the first to respond and the last to leave,” he says. “Now we need to respond on the federal level.”
Bill Webb, executive director of Congressional Fire Services Institute, believes fire safety, unlike crime and education, is not an issue that resonates in voters’ minds. But, he warns, fire is a serious problem that needs Congress’s immediate attention.
While statistics show that fire-related deaths have dropped (from 6,215 in 1988 to 4,050 in 1997), the United States still has one of the highest fire death rates in the industrialized world, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Nationwide, fire kills more Americans each year than all natural disasters combined.
The danger to those who battle the blazes also is high. In 1997, as a result of their work, 94 firefighters died and another 85,400 were injured. Last month, two firefighters in Washington, D.C., and another in New York City died battling blazes.
Federal money is no panacea, Pascrell says. But, he notes, it could go a long way towards bolstering manpower, training, education and prevention.
George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters, agrees that Congress has neglected the fire service for too long. “The bottom line is fire departments across this nation have been feeling a financial squeeze for the better part of a decade,” Burke says. “It is time for us to get more funding.”
Pascrell says he is optimistic the FIRE bill will not sit on the congressional shelf collecting dust this year. He says support for the bill is gaining momentum and that a number of senators have expressed an interest in authoring a similar version of the FIRE bill.