Support of USFA reauthorization April 30 2003

NFPA President testifies in support of USFA reauthorization
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

April 30, 2003 -- Chairman McCain, Senator 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 NFPA (the National Fire Protection Association). NFPA is a non-profit organization, founded more than 100 years ago, with a mission to save lives through fire and life safety education and training, fire research and analysis, and the development of consensus codes and standards that 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.

As the Congress considers the reauthorization of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and its many important functions, I wish, Senator McCain, to testify today in support of your legislation, Senate Bill 321 the Firefighting Research and Coordination Act. I also want to bring to your attention -- and the attention of your colleagues -- a Congressionally authorized report that found serious gaps in the training, staffing and equipment of the U.S. fire service (PDF, 1 MB).

First, let me state emphatically that the reauthorization of the U.S. Fire Administration is extremely important to the effectiveness of the fire service throughout the United States. In May of 1973, nearly 30 years ago to the day, the Chairman of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, Richard E. Bland, transmitted to President Nixon its final report "America Burning." In that report the Commission recommended establishment of the United States Fire Administration to:

  • Evaluate the nation's fire problem through data collection and analysis and research
  • Create a National Fire Academy to improve training and education for fire service personnel
  • Strengthen public awareness of the fire threat
  • Provide grants to state and local governments

For nearly three decades, the USFA and the National Fire Academy have been working successfully with NFPA and the fire service to reduce the death and destruction caused by fire in the U.S. We have made great strides over the past 30 years. While both civilian and firefighter deaths have decreased dramatically, we must do much more to ensure that our fire departments can meet the new challenges of homeland security, including responding effectively to biological or chemical accidents or attacks.

While we support the move of the USFA to the new Department of Homeland Security, there are important functions and positions that must be retained. For example, the USFA must continue to provide public education and fire prevention activities in partnership and cooperation with safety organizations, particularly those working to reduce fire deaths among high risk groups (children, older adults and persons with disabilities). It is also critical that the position of Administrator of the USFA remain a Presidential appointment to retain that important advocacy position within the Executive Branch.

The staff at USFA has done a tremendous job in administering the Assistance to Firefighters (FIRE) Grant Program. Since its creation in FY2001, this program has provided more than $1 billion in financial resources directly to fire departments. Nonetheless, fire departments applied for more than $7 billion, demonstrating that the needs are great. 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 USFA 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.

This legislation and the companion bill introduced by Representative Camp in the House of Representatives will do much to focus federal agencies such as USFA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology on the needs of our first responders. It will provide additional research and support for an already strong process that will inevitably lead to safer firefighting equipment. By becoming a full partner in the consensus process, the Federal Government can be assured that first responders will have the finest equipment and technology available. And isn't that what we should demand for those who routinely risk their lives on our behalf?

Another key element of your legislation is the requirement that equipment purchased through the FIRE Grant Program must meet or exceed applicable voluntary consensus standards. This concept is not new. Many existing federal grant programs already have similar requirements. For example, the Department of Justice's Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Program requires that vests meet minimum safety and performance standards. The voluntary consensus process has served the fire service well for many years, and it should serve as the national model.

However, the development of new technologically-sophisticated equipment is only one aspect of improving the nation's fire service. Consider these findings from the recently published "Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service," a study authorized by Congress and conducted by NFPA in cooperation with FEMA. The study, which I submit today for the Committee's full review, delivers some troubling findings. Allow me to focus on three distinct areas -- training, equipment and staffing. Here's just a sampling of what NFPA and FEMA found:

  • Only one in every 10 fire departments has the local personnel and equipment required to respond to a building collapse or the release of chemical or biological agents
  • 50% of our firefighters involved in "technical rescue" lack formal training, but technical rescue involves unique or complex conditions, precisely the situation they would encounter in 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.
  • 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

Not surprisingly, the picture is bleaker in our smaller communities. And remember seventy-five percent of the country's firefighters are volunteers. Twenty-one percent of rural communities often respond with too few firefighters to engage safely in structural firefighting. Our research also found that thirty-eight percent of fire departments in communities with more than 50,000 residents often respond with too few firefighters.

We must improve these numbers. We cannot continue to ask our firefighters to do more with fewer resources. We would not expect the men and women in our armed services to defend our nation without proper training, equipment and staffing. That's how it should be. But as the country braces for the unknown at home, our nation's firefighters, who are nearly always the first responders in any crisis, are woefully unprepared to fully protect our citizenry or themselves. The need is urgent and overdue.

Our firefighters face the same limitations and obstacles they encountered on September 11th. We can no longer ask our fire departments to survive entirely on local tax revenue supplemented by potluck dinners, auctions and fundraisers. The federal government must provide adequate resources and support to our firefighters to meet the many challenges – whether natural, unintentional or deliberate -- as they protect us and the security of our homeland.

Your legislation would begin to address these urgent needs, and NFPA enthusiastically endorses it.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I will be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the Committee may have.