Kevin O’Connor says we are facing an epic battle to protect a program that has benefited so many fire departments.

An iconic commercial aired in the aftermath of 9/11 that portrayed a group of soot-stained firefighters running a legislative body. The theme was that the firefighter-legislators made decisions predicated solely on doing what was right. Ego, partisanship and politics were not part of the equation.

Regrettably, that scenario is not reality. Congress returned from summer recess, and the fire service lobbying corps was faced with some substantial road blocks in reauthorizing the vitally important and politically popular Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant programs.

Collectively, these programs have pumped billions of dollars into local fire departments since the passage of AFG in 2000. One of the true hallmarks of AFG/SAFER is that decisions on awarding grants are made by firefighters, not government bureaucrats who have never been on the business end of a nozzle or axe.

Both programs have won praise from politicians of both parties, all elements of the fire service and even governmental entities that grade and evaluate government grants. With that said, it should be pretty easy to pass legislation to continue the programs, correct? Wrong.

Understanding the tortured history of AFG/SAFER helps put our current challenges in a historic context. In 1996, a former mayor from Paterson, NJ, Congressman Bill Pascrell (D), bemoaned that the federal government did nothing to help local governments provide training, equipment, apparatus and staffing for the fire service. He crafted legislation known as the FIRE Act to address these deficiencies. Pascrell was joined by then-Congressman and founder of the Congressional Fire Caucus Curt Weldon (R-PA) in promoting the legislation. 

They were met with stiff resistance from their colleagues in both parties. The refrain was “firefighting is a local issue; the federal government has no role.” They doggedly pursued the legislation and after a four-year battle won the day.

The path was not easy. They needed to garner more than 250 bipartisan cosponsors to be taken seriously. Even then, the fire service lobbyists and our Congressional friends needed to employ a little legislative bait-and-switch to pass the bill. Unlike the firefighter-legislators in the commercial, the real members of Congress could NOT figure out how to simply pass the bill that had overwhelming support. So, we needed to hide the legislation in a larger bill through a tactic known as a manager’s amendment. Thankfully, we succeeded.

So, we won, correct? Wrong. Passing the bill only meant that the government could provide grant funding for the program. But it did not mandate it to do so.

The president submits an annual budget. In his budget submissions prior to 9/11, President Bush chose not to fund the program. In fairness, we also had our challenges with President Obama. Each year we needed to walk the halls of Congress to win funding for a program that enjoyed widespread support. Every year, we were back to square one. 

The fire service persisted and over the years, and we successfully reauthorized the programs and won annual appropriations.

Currently, if Congress does not pass another reauthorization, AFG/SAFER will permanently “sunset” (a polite Congressional word meaning END/cease to exit/die) on Jan. 2, 2018.

The year started well. President Trump indicated his support of the program by requesting level appropriations funding in his first budget. All major fire service organizations worked together in concert with Congressional leadership and the Fire Caucus to craft legislation to continue the program. Before the summer recess, the Senate did its job and passed the legislation. 

A hearing was held in the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in July. Indications were all positive. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the Science Committee is trying to severely weaken the bill. They want to sharply cut funding and impose another “sunset” on the legislation. Given the other pressing issues confronting our country and the limited legislative days prior to year’s end, we have an epic battle to protect a program that has benefited fire departments large and small in each of the nation’s 435 Congressional districts.

We will be fighting every day to win this fight for America’s Bravest. I hope and expect that we will prevail.

Politicians, including some of those who are being problematic today, have posed with phony smiles as grant checks were being presented to their local fire departments. When all is said and done, don’t let any politician claim to be a friend if they don’t stand tall for us during this battle.