With program “sunset” on the horizon, National Advisory Council members converge to call on Congress to take action for America’s fire service
The 2023 Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) National Advisory Council (NAC) fall meeting kicked off with an urgent press conference, held at DC Engine 3 on Oct. 12, two days after the U.S. Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control. This event, led by CFSI Executive Director Bill Webb, featured a series of speakers imploring members of Congress to reauthorize three vital pieces of the fire service:
During a previous reauthorization process some years ago, a senator negotiated a “sunset provision” for both the AFG and SAFER grant programs. The sunset stipulates that if not reauthorized by Sept. 30, 2024, the programs would be eliminated, permanently. The current body of authorization expired on Sept. 30, 2023, and is now subject to the reauthorization request.
As written in the Senate bill (which did pass), the proposed reauthorization extends the programs to 2030 and the sunset clause to 2032. The House bill, which has not yet been voted on, has slightly less favorable dates, pushing authorization to 2028 and sunset in 2030.
Due to significant rule changes over the past 24 months, it is too difficult to even attempt to explain the full process of reconciliation and vote, except to say the easiest path forward would be for the House of Representatives to approve Senate Bill 870, as it stands already approved in the Senate.
The NAC press conference featured comments from CFSI Executive Director Bill Webb and several other fire service leaders, all imploring Congress to approve the reauthorization of funding for the grant programs and the USFA. Webb spoke to the 36 million calls for service answered annually by members of the American fire service, and how the departments responding to these calls desperately depend on the grant funding.
NFPA Director of Government Affairs Seth Statler painted a startling picture, explaining that two-thirds of U.S. firefighters are wearing out-of-standard gear in excess of 10 years old. (Note: This doesn’t even touch on the PFAS issue, necessitating the replacement of even more gear.) Statler also emphasized that half of departments are unable to provide SCBA to all their members. Statler underscored the enormity of the issue by noting that a home fire occurs once every 93 seconds in the United States. Beyond the statistics, Statler reminded legislators that, “For 101 years, the president has joined fire departments and the NFPA to drive home fire safety messaging” as part of our annual Fire Prevention Week, urging them to help secure the funding for fire departments to fulfill the Fire Prevention Week mission.
Fairfax County (Virginia) Fire Chief John Butler, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, talked about the critical role that AFG and SAFER play in our departments nationwide, particularly considering the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Butler spoke to the exponential growth of cost and delivery times for apparatus and how departments ultimately absorb those costs. Butler closed with what should be an eye-opening message to legislators: “Without these funds, we struggle to deliver the services our citizens expect and deserve.”
Deputy Chief Kevin Quinn, representing the National Volunteer Fire Council, reflected on the relative euphoria having just come from the USFA Summit, and his anger to now be fighting for the reauthorization of this funding. “Many fire departments are rural, and rural departments struggle” to find funding for the most basic of needs, he said. Another startling statistic offered to legislators: While the numbers of volunteers dropped by 12% from 2012 to 2020, the number of volunteers over 50 nearly doubled in the same period – representing 18.9% in 2012 up to 34% in 2020. Quinn emphasized how the funding helps with younger recruitment through the www.MakeMeAFirefighter.org website maintained by the NVFC.
Representing the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), David Hoagland, president of DC Fire and EMS IAFF Local 36, hit hard with an opening statement about this “uniquely dangerous job”: The public deserves to know that a trained and equipped firefighter is ready to go. No jurisdiction should have to go without adequate staffing on their fire trucks. Far too many firefighters around the country don’t have safe equipment to do their jobs.” Hoagland also spoke to the scourge of cancer affecting the fire service, and he closed with a statement that should be startling for legislators: “Cancer is the number one killer of firefighters. If we’re not there, there is no alternative to 911.”
The final speaker was Victor Stagnaro, CEO of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), speaking to the mental health crisis within our ranks. Stagnaro noted that firefighters and rescue personnel are diagnosed with PTSD at the same or similar rates as service members returning from combat. He closed by underscoring that the AFG/SAFER grant programs are vital to ensuring our nation’s fire departments have the staffing, equipment and resources they need to protect our communities and keep firefighters safe and that, “it is imperative that Congress reauthorize these grant programs and the United States Fire Administration, without delay.”
Following the press conference, the board of directors and representatives of the 39 NAC constituent organizations (including FireRescue1) gathered for our fall meeting. NAC members work across organizations to present a unified approach to fire service legislative issues – certainly embodying the U.S. fire administrators “Fire Service, One Voice” approach.
Interestingly, we heard significant discussion about wildland fires during the front end of the meeting. Webb spoke to a $1 billion wildland grant program (spread over 4 years) and how CFSI was working to get that information to the right leaders in the wildland space.
Michaela Campbell, CFSI director of government affairs, addressed that staff must remain flexible and nimble to meet the challenges presented by the recent rule changes in Congress. She acknowledged strong collaboration with her peers at the IAFC, NFPA, IAFF and NVFC, and provided an overview of the status of the bills. Campbell also spoke to the National Firefighter Registry reauthorization, which is attached to the National Defense reauthorization bill.
While no one comment was more compelling than the other in the parade of officials telling our story, Webb’s closing comments did set the stage for legislators to act: “These 39 fire service organizations call on Congress to reauthorize these grants and the U.S. Fire Administration. This is our 911 call to Congress.”
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