Kevin O’Connor reviews how our new leaders are prioritizing the fire service.

It’s been six months since the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump and the start of the 115th Congress. It’s time to evaluate how our new leaders are treating the fire service.

Funding review

The president began his term promising to eliminate or cut funding for myriad government programs. He honored his commitment, for better or worse, by deeply cutting domestic, non-defense discretionary spending. 

The president exhibited a commitment to the fire service by maintaining level funding for both of our marquis grant programs—the Assistance to Fire Fighters Grant (AFG) program and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER), at levels of $345 million each. The numbers reflect a slight decrease due to the statutory impact of sequester. Likewise, he continued to support funding for the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) program, slightly increasing the budget to more than $38 million.  

It is clear that the president considers these to be important and valuable programs in keeping local fire departments adequately researched and staffed. That is a big win for the fire service. During President Bush’s tenure, his budgets frequently zeroed-out funding for both AFG and SAFER. President Trump deserves plaudits for his direct support of our programs.

However, the president’s budget makes deep cuts to other programs necessary to the fire service and overall homeland security, creating larger public safety concerns. In the Department of Homeland Security, the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and the State Homeland Security Grant Programs (SHSGP) were slashed by 25 percent and saddled with a new 25 percent local match. Critical programs dealing with safety and health in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) were chopped by one-third. Collectively, fire service organizations and lobbyists are working to restore the cuts.

It is imperative that, as an industry, we speak with one voice in advocating for more funding for ALL of our grant programs.

On a positive note, in early June, the president signed a bill into law to improve the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program. The measure, introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), streamlined, expedited and added transparency to the process to pay PSOB claims to the families of the fallen.

At the Congressional level

Further, Congress is dealing with myriad pieces of legislation impacting the fire service. Most importantly is the reauthorization of AFG and SAFER. These programs, which were originally authorized in 2000, have pumped $6.4 and $3.2 billion, respectively, into local fire departments since their inception. 

We are confronted with a real challenge. When the programs were last reauthorized, language was inserted that “sunsets” (a fancy Congressional term for eliminates) them on Jan. 1, 2018. Working to secure the reauthorization requires an all-hands response from all major fire service organizations.

In the Senate, John McCain (R-AZ) introduced the reauthorization, S.829, which has been approved by the Homeland Security Committee and will soon move to the floor for a vote. Last month in the House, leaders from the major fire groups testified at a hearing, chaired by by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), in the Science Committee. Subsequently, the measure will be considered and acted upon. 

Read the official statement about the reauthorization of AFG and SAFER programs from Captain John Niemiec—president of the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics—before the House subcommittee on Research and Technology.

Count on your DC lobbyists to work tirelessly on this measure. But every firefighter can help move the bill. The action is simple: Tell your senators and Members of Congress to reauthorize AFG and SAFER now! Visit, call, text, email—whatever you need to do to spread the word and demand action. 

Cancer in focus

Cancer is a scourge that has plagued the fire service for generations. Firefighters have a much higher percentage of developing cancer than the general population. Throughout the nation, state legislatures have enacted various presumption laws to protect and compensate firefighters who contract these cancers.

Information and data are incredibly powerful tools. Regrettably, we have policymakers who question the link between firefighting and cancer. The Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, H.R.931, introduced by Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) and Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), would mandate that states record and report when a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer. The information would be sanitized to protect confidentiality, but entered into a national database. 

Armed with this data, we will be better prepared to analyze the occupational link between cancer and firefighters and, most importantly, develop prevention strategies and programs to minimize the risk for a future generation of firefighters.

What happens in DC impacts you! Get involved!