Congress: Keep the Public Safe
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2009
NFPA has supported the federal Fire Grants program from the beginning of that effort to assist the fire service. We strongly urge not just the continuation of this program, but also a significant increase in its funding.
There are two parts to the Fire Grants program. One is the Assistance to Firefighters Grants, which became law in 2000. The federal government recognized that local budget shortfalls were denying fire departments the resources necessary to protect the public and the protective clothing and equipment to keep firefighters safe. Those needs took on greater urgency after 9/11 and the publication of NFPA’s A Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service in 2002 (PDF, 1MB) . The other part of the program, the 2004 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Act, illustrates the federal government’s commitment to help local fire departments hire, recruit, and retain firefighters to reach minimum staffing levels.
Government at all levels faces unprecedented budget pressures, resulting in further cutbacks in fire departments across the United States. But some, including some in Congress, question whether it is appropriate for the federal government to pay for services that have traditionally been a local responsibility.
Curt Varone, head of NFPA’s Public Fire Protection Division, presented NFPA’s position this summer at a hearing before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology on the reauthorization of these programs. Varone pointed out that our first needs assessment showed a pressing national need for federal assistance to fire departments and that a second study, published in 2005, showed that the federal assistance was resulting in measurable improvements in some areas of need.
For instance, the percentage of departments able to provide all responders on a shift with self-contained breathing apparatus increased from 30 to 40 percent. There was an increase from 38 to 52 percent in the number of departments that could provide personal alert safety system devices to all emergency responders on a shift. We also believe that SAFER is essential in achieving minimum safe staffing levels. While some progress has been made in the areas our research pinpointed, there is still more to do.
Yet some in Washington insist there should be no federal programs to assist local fire departments. We strongly disagree. After 9/11, the federal government made it clear to states and local communities that preparation to respond to a terrorist attack was an urgent national priority and that proper preparation must include training, equipment, and personnel. That kind of preparation is expensive.
At the same time, the traditional focus of fire departments—protecting the public from fire and other emergencies—is also vitally important. With more than 3,000 deaths a year in fires in this country and billions of dollars in property loss, can we afford to shift valuable resources from existing prevention, suppression, and public education programs? Is anybody in Washington ready to say that the terrorist threat is behind us? Are we willing to let our most vulnerable citizens—the aged, the young, and the needy—lose their lives at the rate they are now? Can we ignore growing problems such as wildfires?
None of us should accept the current rate of fire-related deaths, injuries, and property loss as inevitable. Progress in those areas is under serious pressure in this era of severe budget constraints, and we must not lose sight of the fact that terrorism is still a threat. Since 9/11, all the experts have warned that Al Qaeda was likely to show patience before striking again. The fact is that without continued substantial federal assistance, we will neither be ready for those extraordinary events nor improve upon our fire safety statistics. We urge Congress to move quickly to give fire departments the kind of assistance they need to keep the public safe.