Kevin O’Connor says that following the election, we must mobilize to ensure politicians stay focused on the needs of first responders.

The election is over. President Donald Trump is ensconced as our 45th President, and the 115th Congress is empaneled under a strong GOP majority. The time to govern is before us. How will the fire service fare in this brave new world? Barring some mystical ability or a crystal ball, I don’t believe that anyone can opine with any certainty on that question. 

The need to mobilize

Borrowing on Edmund Burke’s famous admonishment that evil triumphs when good men do nothing, it is necessary for the entire fire service to mobilize to ensure that bad things don’t happen and we continue to get the federal resources and partnerships we need to fulfill our mission.

There isn’t a major fire service organization that doesn’t pledge to “mobilize.” The problem, of course, is that most of our members don’t care to mobilize and we fail. As long as ordinary firefighters can put on the turnouts and respond, they really have no interest in being grassroots lobbyists or advocates. With that in mind, our first step is recognizing that most firefighters hate politics. Step two is making politics “personal” and “relevant” to their lives. Unless firefighters see a direct value in political or legislative involvement, they will remain dormant.

Here’s how we make it relevant: All of us entered the fire service to save lives. We didn’t think about how the apparatus, equipment, training, salaries and other associated costs are paid. We just assumed that it would be handled—that someone else would do the job.

The reality is that nothing is free. For years, the federal government fought against any direct aid to local fire departments. The refrain from politicos in both parties was that it is a “local” responsibility. Beginning in the middle 1990s, we worked for several Congresses to enact the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program that was known, at the time, as the FIRE Act. It was a long, frustrating process to pass the bill, which we did in 2000. In his very first budget message, President George W. Bush tried to zero out funding and kill the bill. We fought back and won.

In the years after 9/11, politicians lavished us with praise. Even the politicians who opposed our efforts were silent, afraid to incur the wrath of voters who still lionized America’s Bravest. Those days have ended. Powerful members of Congress have tried to bury the program. Former Senate Homeland Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-OK) insisted on sun-setting the authorization for AFG/SAFER. In his run for Appropriations Chair, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) listed it as an unnecessary program and waste of taxpayer dollars. Each year, President Barack Obama recommended decreased funding. Firefighters and our programs are no longer sacred cows. President Trump says he “loves firefighters.” Wonderful.

Collectively, the fire service, through its million-plus members, can touch every member of Congress. But will we? Emailing members of Congress and their staff is an easy, painless task. Just Google “email members of Congress” and you are on your way. Or you can still visit your Congress members or their staff in a state or district office.

What’s at stake

Beyond AFG/SAFER, which both need to be re-authorized and funded, there are other issues that demand action. Congressional Fire Service Caucus Chair Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) will be re-introducing two major bills to protect firefighters and their families. The first is the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, which would track the incidences of cancer among our members. The second is the Honoring Emergency Response Officers Benefits Reform Act, which would correct and streamline processes to award the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits program (PSOB) to the families of our fallen. 

Further, legislation will be proposed to better fund our Urban Search and Rescue programs. Other proposals will address multiple issues on wildland firefighting, various aspects of EMS, fire prevention and code regulations.

For career firefighters, the IAFF will be advocating the enactment of national collective bargaining to give firefighters a voice in the workplace and protect their employment rights. They will also combat attempts to eliminate defined benefit retirement plans and weaken disability protections for injured firefighters.

In sum

Our new political leaders need information, education and advocacy so they make the right decisions concerning the fire service. Firefighters are the best and most trusted messengers to accomplish that.