Support of FIRE Grant program July 8 2004

NFPA President testifies in support of FIRE Grant program
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate

July 8, 2004 -- Chairman McCain, Ranking Member Hollings and members of the Committee, I am honored to appear before this Committee today.  My name is James M. Shannon, and I am President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).NFPA is a non-profit organization; founded more than 100 years ago, with a mission to save lives through scientifically based consensus codes and standards, fire and life safety education and training, and fire research and analysis. NFPA consensus codes and standards are adopted by state and local jurisdictions throughout the United States and widely used by the federal government.

Today NFPA has nearly 300 codes and standards addressing safety, each accredited by the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) and developed by technical experts, the fire service, and others participating as volunteers in a consensus process. This process ensures that all interested parties have a say in developing standards. Congress affirmed its support for voluntary consensus standards in the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995 (P.L.104-113) and reaffirmed that support in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the law that created the new department. Just a few months ago, the Department of Homeland Security adopted five of our standards for personal protection equipment for use in the FY 2005 state and urban area security grant programs, and this past May Secretary Ridge in testimony before the 9-11 Commission cited NFPA's national preparedness standard (NFPA 1600) as the foundation that the private sector can use to improve readiness.

As Congress considers the reauthorization of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, known at the FIRE Grant Program, I wish to testify in support of S. 2411, the "Assistance to Firefighters Act of 2004." This legislation ensures that the work the United States Fire Administration (USFA) has done in administering this crucial grant program to best meet the critical fire protection needs of the nation will continue.

First, let me state emphatically that the reauthorization of FIRE Grant Program is extremely important to the effectiveness of the fire service throughout the United States. This program addresses every element of the fire service including fire suppression, prevention, code enforcement, and emergency medical response. While it is not specifically a terrorism program, the FIRE Grant program provides the foundation on which terrorism preparedness must be built. These basic levels of preparedness, which we know so many departments lack, must be adequately met.

In 1973 the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, transmitted to President Nixon its final report "America Burning." In that report the Commission recommended establishment of the United States Fire Administration to, among many other functions, provide grants to state and local governments. Before Congress created the FIRE Grant Program, USFA was unable to perform that key function with the scale and breadth needed to help America's fire service achieve full effectiveness in its role of protecting the public. Now, with the continuing support of Congress, and with diligent administration by USFA, this program is addressing the needs of the fire service and promoting public safety.

The staff at USFA has done a tremendous job in administering the FIRE Grant Program. Since its creation in FY2001, this program has provided more than $1 billion in financial resources directly to fire departments. Fire departments, however, have applied for more than $7 billion, and, as I shall discuss, the real needs are even greater. It is crucial that the FIRE Grant Program be maintained as a separate and distinct funding source where fire departments can receive direct funding from the federal government and avoid unnecessary red tape. I would also urge the Congress to fund the program at a level no less than its authorized amount of $900 million dollars.

When I said the needs are much greater than the currently authorized and appropriated amounts for the FIRE Grant program, I was speaking on the basis of the "Needs Assessment Survey(PDF, 1 MB) of the fire service, which was commissioned by Congress as part of the FIRE Act and published by NFPA in cooperation with FEMA/USFA in 2002. Let me share with you a few of the major findings from that survey.

  • Only one in every 10 fire departments has the local personnel and equipment required to respond effectively to a building collapse or the release of chemical or biological agents with even minimal to moderate casualties;
  • 50% of our firefighters involved in "technical rescue" lack formal training, but technical rescue involving unique or complex conditions is precisely the skill they would need to respond to a terrorist attack;
  • There are other huge gaps in training – There has been no formal training for 21% of those involved in structural firefighting; for 27% of those involved in EMS work; and for 40% who are sent in to deal with hazardous materials;
  • And we don't protect our firefighters as we should. One third of the protective clothing worn by firefighters sent into a burning building is more than 10 years old, and an estimated 57,000 firefighters lack any protective clothing at all;
  • On a typical fire department shift, 45% of first responding firefighters lack portable radios; 36% lack self-contained breathing apparatus; and 42% answer an emergency call without a Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) device that is critical in locating an injured or trapped firefighter;
  • Finally, at least 65% of cities and towns nationwide don't have enough fire stations to achieve widely recognized response-time guidelines. Those guidelines recommend that firefighters be on the scene of any situation within 4 minutes, 90% of the time.

There are those that have called for the establishment of national preparedness standards for our first responders; surely meeting the basic needs of our fire departments is one standard we can't afford to leave unfulfilled.

Later this summer, NFPA will release a needs assessment for each of the 50 states, based on further analysis of the data collected for the national fire service needs assessment. We fully expect these reports to demonstrate that fire departments in every part of the nation share in the national needs and require the help this grant program has been providing.

The Needs Assessment began before the horrific events of September 11, 2001, but because of the foresight of USFA and our fire service advisors, the survey included extensive attention to terrorism preparedness. When the Council on Foreign Relations began an exercise, under former Senator Warren Rudman, to develop cost estimates of terrorism preparedness for the entire first responder community at all levels of government, the Needs Assessment permitted NFPA to develop and substantiate the fire service portion of these cost estimates with unusual detail.

In its report released last year, the Council estimated that it would take $98.4 billion in additional funds above current spending (estimated at $26-76 billion) over the next 5 years, or $19.7 billion per year, to meet the needs of our first responders to handle the additional responsibilities of homeland security.  The fire service portion of this, based on the Council's use of NFPA's analysis of the Needs Assessment Survey, was $26.5 billion in initial costs and $7.1 billion per year in ongoing costs. 

Chairman McCain, this legislation takes the next, appropriate step, and that is to provide the resources to update the original needs assessment. Now that the FIRE Grant Program is in its fourth year, it is important to have the empirical data to show how this program is addressing the needs documented in the original assessment.  This updated study will measure the impact of the FIRE Grant program on the shortfalls identified by NFPA's original assessment.

S. 2411 continues the fire prevention and education portion of the FIRE Grant program. Although, it is only five percent of the total funding, fire prevention and education activities conducted by our fire departments, educators, and other community leaders address a pressing need. These programs often reach out to high-risk groups who disproportionably die in fires: children, older adults and the disadvantaged.  Some disturbing statistics about these groups:

  • Children five and younger and adults sixty-five and older have a death rate from fire and burns that is roughly twice the rate of the population as a whole
  • These two groups account for over 40% of all civilian fatalities
  • Fire risk is highest in rural areas and large urban areas- the same communities where poverty and other high-risk conditions are most widespread

Fire protection has always been and always will be primarily a local responsibility.  The FIRE Grant program does not change this.  However, our firefighters, who are nearly always the first responders in any crisis, need more help.  When we're telling the nation's fire departments to prepare and be ready for attacks on our homeland, whether initiated from abroad or domestically, we can't expect them to pay for sophisticated equipment and training by relying solely on local taxes and fundraisers.

The federal government must continue to provide adequate resources through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and to support our firefighters to meet the many challenges they face every day. This legislation will help to ensure that this program does just that. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify here today. I am happy to answer any questions you have.