Oddly as a child I was not fascinated by the roaring and clanging of fire trucks and other vehicles. Probably an early sign of some abnormality in a young male. Yet it is important that I really only started to focus on the Fire Service when I joined FEMA on September 10, 1979, almost 32 years ago. The Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 had been largely created and sponsored by Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington state. "Maggie" as he was known to all was one of the longest serving Senators ever. Led first by Howard Tipton, the United States Fire Administration was first housed in the Department of Commerce before being wrapped into the new formed FEMA under Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978. That incorporation was to result in an unhappy immediate future for the USFA and its leadership. First, the campus it hoped to obtain in downtown N.W. Washington D.C. the campus of the former women's college Marjory Webster was determined to be off limits for a federal campus like training activity. When that was rejected and that facility transferred through legislative slight of hand to Galludet University--the so-called federal university for the deaf-- in Washington, D.C. a matching appropriation majically showed up allowing the purchase of the former St. Joseph's College For Women in Emmittsburg, MD. That choice was fortuitus and has proved to be the Jewel in the Crown for FEMA although sometimes that facility was outside of FEMA as during the period in which Michael Chertoff's 2SR operated, essentially from October 2005-March 2007. It should also be pointed out that I count at least seven (7) major training campus like operations in DHS including the largest, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Facility in Glyncoe, GA, transferred from the US Treasury. Always remember of course that the first head of TSA before DHS existed, and now one of the largest components of DHS, was in reality fired for trying to turn TSA into a major law enforcement agency. The fact that it is one of the largest federal law enforcement entities of course was not ignored by DOJ and its continued attempts to stamp out rivals anywhere including the underfunded, understaffed FEMA throughout it days of independence before there was a DHS. The fundamental insecurity of DOJ has caused many problems worthy of detailed study and analysis but not on this blog.
It turned out that one of FEMA's first major tests was the explosion and eruption and pyroclastic flows of Mt.St. Helens and it all happened in "Maggie's" state. Spring 1980. Firefighting was a heavy component of the response but note that the Fire Service generally is divided into three parts, just like Gaul. First the typical metropolitian department. Second the wildland/urban interface experts. And then third the modern remainder in their own culture and expertise the EMT and HAZMATS and Terrorism response types all under the umbrella of the Fire Service.
Disclosure, post-retirement I once bought a table for a two year period at the Congressional Fire Caucus Dinner. These tables cost me $1000 each. It proved a good investment because of the insights gained. Essentially I saw on both occasions promises made to the FIRE SERVICE that were breached almost immediately, and in one case, promises to the Fire Service in a dinner speech by the first DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, breached by him in Congressional testimony the next morning.
Despite the fact that a democratic controlled Congress created the Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, since amended several times, the Republicans when in the White House have not favored the USFA or the Fire Service generally. I have posted on this subject before. Perhaps they caught OMB's budget distaste for the FIRE SERVICE as a largely STATE and LOCAL issue. As I have stated before regardless of this prejudice the largest force of trained or semi-trained professional and volunteer first responders in the USA is the Fire Service. This force must be protected and leveraged by the federal government to provide both EM and HS capability.
Also of note is that the FIRE PREVENTION AND CONTROL ACT of 1974, as amended is under the authorization authority of the respective SCIENCE committees in the Congress. I would recommend that the next Congress create a JOINT COMMITTEE ON HOMELAND SECURITY, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, AND PUBLIC SAFETY with jurisdiction over this statute. Certainly it would be opposed, more heavily by the Judiciary Committees but they have more than enough to do with dealing with issues related to WMD law enforcement, cyber security and domestic INTEL which have been largely ignored by other Committees. Of course I have also recommended that much of the existing DOJ be transferred to DHS with DOJ retaining the litigation function primarily and certain other programs, functions, and activities. The drug war certainly should be in DHS and oddly the FIRE SERVICE is not a full member in that WAR ON DRUGS as rural meth labs and other HAZMAT sites are often attacked by a joint force of police and fire. They are very dangerous sites by the way and interesting I personally don't know if USFA or the Fire Academy provide specific training in knocking over a illegal drug lab. HAZMATS training is provided by several elements in DHS, including the NOBLE Center at former Ft. McClennan in Alabama, and at the National Fire Academy.
Gordon Vickery, a Senate confirmed Fire Administrator actually ran FEMA for almost 6 months as its door opened. Guess where he had been Fire Chief? Yup! Seattle. One of the things I liked is that he mandated CPR certification for all FEMA employees. A great policy choice despite the mutterings of FEMA employees. It later saved many including former Director John Macy when post-FEMA he had a heart attack during a deposition on the issue of whether FEMA Regional Directors should be career or political.
Note that at one time and I believe again now FEMA has a Fire slot in each region. This should be expanded upon. After all note that former Battlion and City Fire Chiefs have led FEMA long after the departure of Gordon Vickery.
Well this post has gotten rather long, but more will follow as I try and suggest ways the FIRE SERVICE can be better leveraged for conducting their actual role in EM/HS and public saftey. The largest body of responders.
And USFA and the Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 are currently authorized through FY 2012.