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Public Statements

Remarks by Senator John Kerry at the International Association of Firefighters Legislative Conference

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Thank you very much.  As I begin, I would like to take a few moments to pay tribute to the brave American men and women who at this very moment are on the frontlines of war, half a world away.  Many of us in this room know what they are feeling now. And whatever differences any of us may have over issues of policy, it is time to stand united behind them as they put their lives on the line. May God protect them in the days and dangers ahead - and bring them home safely to their families and our country.

In that same spirit, I am honored to be here with so many of you, who, day after day, shift after shift, stand on the frontlines of our safety here at home. 

In 1999, tragedy struck my state when a warehouse in Worcester went up in flames.  Six brave firefighters went it.  None came out alive.  Massachusetts and the nation mourned as one.  Firefighters came from Australia and Ireland and all over America to mourn their fallen brothers.  I looked the families in the eyes and promised that their loved ones' sacrifices would not be forgotten.  And long after the bagpipes ended their wailing and the flags returned to full staff, I kept that promise.  I have fought for better equipment and training, for tracking technology and workplace protections.  I will not stop my fight to honor the Worcester Six and all the firefighter's we've lost until the job is done.

For 85 years, the IAFF has been leading the way for better benefits, working conditions, and health care for our frontline firefighters.  Some politicians may just have discovered firefighters and your cause, but your work has always been vital to this nation and to the lives of its people. Even before September 11th, firefighters placed themselves in danger, showed amazing heroism, and risked their lives for others every single day.

But September 11th wasn't just another day.  Three hundred forty-three of your brothers - and America's heroes - died that day.  They were parents and children, brothers and husbands, fiancés and best friends.  And they were one more thing.  They were proud members of Locals 94 and 854.  They never forgot it and neither will we.
There is nothing I could say here today that could add or subtract to what they did that day.  We will always remember their sacrifice and tell stories of their courage.

But that courage demands not just gratitude and admiration, but a true national commitment. As Harold Shaitberger has said, "Words are not enough."  It is time for action.

It is time for us to really honor those who fall in the line of duty with deeds, not words.  It is time for us pass presumptive disability benefits and the SAFER Firefighters Act, to fully fund the FIRE ACT, and to ensure collective bargaining power for firefighters all over this country.  Don't let another politician stand in front of you if they're not willing to at least do that.

But that is just the beginning of our work and our resolve.  A year and a half after September 11th, it is time we for us to do what it will take to protect America here at home. 

On September 11th, 2001, America was attacked without provocation or warning.  The goal of the terrorists was to destroy the centers of our economy, our military, and our government.  They aimed to bring this nation to its knees.  They missed.  America was united as never before.

America swore we would bring justice for those who were lost, that we would bring security to this land, and that we would not stop until the fight was won.  Like that December day in Pearl Harbor 60 years ago, it was a day of infamy.  And the challenge to this generation is to show that we could be as brave and bold as those that came before us.  And as in World War II, it is clear this war has to be fought on more than one front.

World War II was waged in the Atlantic and the Pacific, in Europe, Asia, and Africa.  This war will be fought in distant parts of the world - and in the very neighborhoods we call home.
 
The most basic responsibility of government is to provide for the common defense.  But thus far the federal government has provided too little support, provided too little leadership, and provided too little vision for the common defense of our homeland.  Any American anywhere in our country may pay a price for this failure.  But in the event of another attack, America's firefighters will pay the highest price.
 
For the past year and half, in communities all across America, many committed men and women have done their best to secure our homeland defense.  You and they have made remarkable progress.  But you and they need a partner who will provide the support and resources we need.

Thus far, what has been offered is little more than a huge new bureaucracy and a run on duct tape.  Funding for firefighters, paramedics, and law enforcement has been vetoed when we should be increasing it. Nothing has been done to help states and cities being forced to cut firefighters' jobs.  Nothing has been done to help our first responders with the growing cost of health care, even though they are often at the greatest risk.   What has been proposed is tax cuts for the few over the safety, health care, and job security of our firefighters.  This makes it harder to keep seasoned, experienced firefighters on the job and imperils Americans' safety.

Instead of just new offices in Washington, we need support for the frontlines.  We can't tinker while the clock on homeland security is ticking. 

Right now, billions in funds the Congress put into law for homeland security at the community level sits stalled in the bureaucracy. This money is critical - and we should get it off the railroad to limbo and put it on a fast track now. You need the help - and you shouldn't have to wait to get it.
America needs a new strategy for homeland security that asks Americans to do more and takes steps as big as the threats we face.  We need to put our faith and trust in the people on the frontlines - and back it up with real resources.  We need to make sure first defenders have the gear and support they need, and the benefits and protections they've earned.  And we need to do it now.

I hope that America is never attacked again, but it is the job of a leader to pray for the best and prepare for the worst.  In the coming months, I will be speaking more on this subject, but today I want to discuss six steps America can and must take to defend our country from future attacks. 

First, we need to give you the same level of support we give our armed forces.  You are now our defenders against terrorism. And it is time - in fact, it is way past time - to make sure you have all you need to carry out that mission.
I hope this nation would never send its armed forces into battle without the training, the equipment, the force levels, the information, and the weapons they need.  It is wrong that you're being sent out without that same support every single day.
That's why I'm proposing a new "First Defenders Initiative" to assure that our local responders are ready.  Today, nearly two-thirds of firehouses are understaffed, making it difficult to deal with traditional fires and medical emergencies, let alone the threat of terrorism. I believe we need to create a separate fund that goes directly to hire up to 100,000 new firefighters and to provide them with vital new equipment necessary to assure firefighters are prepared.  Let's name it the Father Mychal Judge fund in honor of an American hero and in order to let heroes keep America safe.

We need to restore the COPS program to put 100,000 new police on our streets - which I sponsored and which is now on the chopping block.  We need to make sure firefighters and police have protective gear and everything else you need to keep you safe while you protect our safety.  And you should get the resources directly, not through distant bureaucracies that make decisions for you - and too often, may make the wrong decisions.
Second, we need to bring 21st century technology to the war on terror so that you and other first defenders can communicate and share the information that can save your lives and help you save the lives of others.  When we fight overseas, our Army and Marine forces on the ground, Navy and Air Force pilots in the sky, and command centers far from the battlefield have access to remarkable communication technology, and can harness fresh in real time.  We need to give you those same abilities. 

Tragically, we have so far fallen short here at home.  On the morning of September 11th, New York City police helicopter pilots reported to their officers down below that it looked like the Twin Towers were going to come down.  They didn't realize that the firefighters on the inside had radios that were on a different frequency and couldn't hear the warning.  First defenders must have modern technology to talk with each other at every moment - before, during, and after an attack.
We need to coordinate all the sources of information as well as all means of communications.  In the months leading up to September 11th, two of the hijackers were arrested for drunk driving -- and another was stopped for speeding and then let go even though he was the subject of an arrest warrant in a neighboring county and was on a federal terrorist watch list.

Firefighters and law enforcement must have access to critical data so they can connect the dots. And we need to simplify and streamline the 58 national terrorist watch lists and make sure them available to the right people on the frontlines. 
Four of the five terrorists who crashed an airliner into the Pentagon had false IDs.  If teenagers trying to buy beer can falsify IDs, can we be surprised when terrorists can fake driver's licenses and visas?  It's time for a new generation of smart driver's licenses and IDs that use encrypted technology so they can't be forged.  Instead of the assault on our civil liberties that John Ashcroft is waging, we need to rely on new technology that can protect our privacy and our county at the same time. We need to reform our intelligence agencies so they collect, analyze and share all the relevant information they can about the terrorist threat.

Third, we need to do much more to protect our land, sea, and skies from assault.  Because the attack on September 11th involved airplanes, that's where our focus has been.  But there's no reason to think the terrorists will try to the same tactic again. 

We screen millions of shoes in airports everyday, but less than two percent of the 21,000 enormous shipping containers that arrive in our ports every day.  Any one of them could have a biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon inside.  We need to invest in and employ new technologies to screen the containers, ships, trains, and trucks that come into this country.
Fourth, we need a national "Homeland Health Initiative" to track and combat any potential terrorist use of deadly disease.  When we're dealing with biological weapons, every second counts and every minute can make the difference between a horrific strike that kills hundreds and a national pandemic that kills millions.

Yet, today it routinely takes up to three weeks for a public health department to register a disease incident report in the national database.  We need a new real time detection system to monitor ambulance calls, pharmacy usage, a surge in increases of sickness in schools and businesses, and hospital admissions so that we can see disease outbreaks early on, before they take off out of control.

Fifth, we have to spur scientists and the private sector to create the technologies we need to fight the War on Terrorism.  Sixty years ago, the Manhattan Project got its name because its head had his offices at 120 Broadway Street in New York.  That is half a mile from where the World Trade Center once stood.  We have to honor the memories of those that perished - and the initiative of those in the Manhattan Project -- by developing new discoveries that will make another attack much less likely.

This means gathering the nation's greatest scientists to seek and find vaccines, antidotes and detection technologies to disarm, treat, and track down chemical and biological weapons before they can do incalculable damage. 

Sixth, we need to call on all our people to do their part in a new "Defend America Initiative."  In the days and weeks after September 11th, all America was one.  We showed our patriotism as we waited hours to donate blood, volunteered to help the victims, stood on corners to celebrate the flag, or bowed our heads in silent prayer. 

Americans want to serve and contribute.  President Bush told us to go shopping.  I believe we are better than that - that each of us still want to make a difference and all of us will enlist in the cause of a safer nation. 

Winning the War on Terrorism will require more Americans than ever before to work together in common purpose.  And it will require a President who is willing to challenge them to serve and reach for a goal higher than themselves.
We need to enlist the National Guard more effectively in Homeland Security.  We need expand AmeriCorps to make Homeland Security a core mission. Since September 11, applications to AmeriCorps have increased by 50 percent.  Unfortunately, under President Bush, this service corps has been slashed. When young Americans are asking what they can do for their country, the answer they get shouldn't be a door shut in their face.

And finally, we need to create a new Community Defense Service comprised of hundreds of thousands of Americans in neighborhoods all over the country. Volunteer Service Captains would receive training and education to assist their communities in the event of an attack.  They would be a combination between the old Civil Defense Program from World War II and a 21st century Neighborhood Watch. They would be trained to help identify local health professionals and experts in the area, provide information on local evacuation or quarantine plans, and stand ready to assist first defenders in the hours after an attack.

I believe the steps I have outlined today represent a serious response to that day of infamy in 2001.  What occurred then was an enormous event and it deserves an equal response.  Homeland security has to be a top priority.  With new technology and ingenuity, by doing more to sustain our first defenders and calling on Americans to do more for their country, we can make our country stronger, safer, and more secure.

But this will not happen until we have leadership in the White House that is ready to stand with you and not just pose with you. 
We have seen enough of politicians who never paid attention to firefighters before September 11th now pretending they're you're best friends.  We've had enough of those who offer words without actions, tough rhetoric and a tin pot record.  They do not honor your fallen friends, they betray them.

If we are truly to honor those that fell on September 11th - and all the others who have fallen in the line of duty - then let's give all our first defenders the tools and training to protect us - and the respect and rewards that you deserve.
Our first defenders must never come in last in the budget.  You are first up the stairs and you deserve to be first in line when we decide our spending priorities.

You protect Americans every day and you deserve the protections of collective bargaining and real health benefits. 
At any moment at any day, you and other firefighters can confront sudden danger or disaster.  Nothing will ever change that.  And when that "last alarm" tolls, it tells of those who are left behind, it tells of hearts broken, and families in pain.  But its ring also reminds us of heroes who did their duty, saved innocent lives, served their country and starred down fear.
Those heroes live on permanently - in our pride in them and in the memories of friends and family.  

But we owe them even more.  We owe them a nation which ensures they did not die in vain.  We owe them an America that honors their sacrifice by making sure that their brothers and sisters who are left behind get the support they need to stand ready and answer the call.

Thank you.

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