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National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2005 - Continued

Location: Washington DC


Mr. DeWINE. Mr. President, I am pleased to put my full support behind an agreement made between Senators DODD, MCCAIN, WARNER, LEVIN, and HOLLINGS to attach the Assistance to Firefighters Act of 2004, as amendment No. 3309, to the pending Department of Defense Authorization bill.

Each day, we entrust our lives and the safety of our families, friends, and neighbors to the capable hands of the brave men and women in our local police departments. These individuals are willing to risk their lives and safety out of a dedication to their citizens and their commitment to public service.

We ask local firefighters to risk no less than their lives, as well, every time they respond to an emergency fire alarm, a chemical spill, or as we saw on September 11-terrorist attacks. We ask them to risk their lives responding to the nearly 2 million reports of fire that they receive on an annual basis. Every 18 seconds while responding to fires, we expect them to be willing to give their lives in exchange for the lives of our families, neighbors, and friends. One hundred firefighters lost their lives in 2002 in the line of duty, and nearly 450 lost their lives in 2001. The unyielding commitment these individuals have made to public safety surely deserves an equally strong commitment from the Federal Government.

In 2000, Congress affirmed the value of having a properly trained, equipped, and staffed fire service by passing the Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement, FIRE, Act-legislation that Senator DODD and I introduced, along with Congressmen PASCRELL, WELDON, and many others, on the House side. In the 4 years since the FIRE Act became law, fire departments have made significant progress in terms of filling the substantial needs outlined in the National Fire Protection Association's "needs assessment."

To date, Congress has appropriated nearly $2 billion dollars for the FIRE Act program. Virtually every penny of that amount has gone directly to local fire departments through FIRE grants to provide firefighter personal protective equipment, training to ensure more effective firefighting practices, breathing apparatus, new firefighting vehicles, emergency medical services supplies, fire prevention programs, and other important uses.

The direct nature of the FIRE Act grant program-funds literally go straight from the Federal Government to local fire departments-is an extremely important aspect of the law, particularly in light of the difficulties we are seeing with other homeland security grant programs getting money to flow directly to the intended recipients.

FIRE Act grants are awarded based on a competitive, peer-review process that helps ensure that the most important needs are filled first and that funding will be used in an effective manner. I am proud to note that 86 of Ohio's 88 counties have received FIRE Act funding up to this point and that the fire service in my home state is much better prepared to respond to emergencies as a result. The bottom line is this: The FIRE Act program has proven to be an extremely valuable tool for fire-based first responders.

The time has come to reauthorize this important legislation-to build upon the successes of the original FIRE Act and to refine the program where improvements can be made. Amendment No. 3309, which I am offering along with Senator Dodd, accomplishes just that.

Our amendment focuses on four central themes. First, we take steps to make the grant program more accessible for fire departments serving small, rural communities and to eliminate barriers to participation faced by departments serving heavily populated jurisdictions. Second, we codify changes made in program administration since its transfer to the recently created Department of Homeland Security. Third, the amendment increases the emphasis within the program on life-saving Emergency Medical Services and technologies. And fourth, we evaluate the program through a series of reports to help ensure that resources are targeted to the areas of greatest need. These priorities have been developed jointly with the fire service, and represent a means to strengthen the FIRE Act program for years to come.

Our amendment would help the FIRE Act program more accessible for fire departments serving the very largest and smallest jurisdictions in America. Our experience over the past four years has been that a number of features in the program make participation difficult for departments serving these populations. Career fire departments, most of which serve populations well in excess of 50,000, have been receiving only a small percentage of the total grants thus far. After consulting with the fire service organizations, fire chiefs in my home State of Ohio, and officials administering the program at the Department of Homeland Security, we have found that there are two main reasons why this has been the case.

First, matching requirements for large departments, currently fixed at 30 percent, have been particularly difficult to meet. Second, current law dictates that departments-whether they serve a large city, such as Cleveland and have numerous fire stations, or a small town, such as Cedarville, OH, and have only one station-are eligible for the exact same level of funding each year: $750,000. These two elements of the current program have caused a number of large fire departments to forgo applying for FIRE grants. With respect to smaller, often volunteer-based departments serving populations of 20,000 or less, budgets are often so limited that meeting the current match is simply not possible. Many of these departments struggle with even the most basic needs, such as having an adequate number of staff available to respond to a structure fire.

Our legislation addresses each of these problems in a simple and straightforward fashion. Specifically, the amendment would reduce matching requirements by one third for departments serving communities of 50,000, and by one half for departments serving 20,000 or fewer residents in order to encourage increased participation by these departments. The amendment also would re-structure caps on grant amounts to reflect population served, with up to $2,250,000 for departments serving one million or more, $1,500,000 for departments serving between 500,000 and one million, and $1,000,000 for departments serving fewer than 500,000 residents. Together, these two changes would go a long way toward increasing the accessibility of the program for the very largest and smallest departments in the United States.

The second major component of our legislation has to do with the transfer of the FIRE Act Administration from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, FEMA, to the Department of Homeland Security, DHS. When FEMA's functions were transferred into the DHS, the FIRE grant program, along with the U.S. Fire Administration, also were transferred to DHS. As a part of that transfer, formal administration of the FIRE grant program has been delegated to the Department to the Office of Domestic Preparedness, ODP, which oversees all DHS grant programs. While the U.S. Fire Administration-the real fire experts within the Federal Government-remains involved, we need to take steps to formalize the management of the program following the transfer to DHS.

There are a number of reasons for solidifying program administration in law, chief among them being the ability of fire departments across our Nation to plan for the future, and the ability to ensure an ongoing role for fire experts in the process. First, our amendment gives the Secretary of Homeland Security overall authority for the program. This just makes sense given the Secretary's current home within ODP. Additionally, the amendment would codify in law practices currently in use by ODP-peer review by experts from national fire service organizations, a formal role for the U.S. Fire Administration, and collaborative meetings to recommend grant criteria.

These steps would benefit the program for years to come and would help bring stability to the increasingly mature FIRE grant program. Perhaps more importantly, formalizing the role of the U.S. Fire Administrator and national fire service organizations would help resolve a fundamental tension between the mission of the FIRE Act program, to improve firefighting and EMS resources nationwide for all hazards, and the mission of its caretaker, ODP, to focus on terrorism prevention and response.

It makes sense for ODP, as the central clearinghouse for grant programs within DHS, to manage the FIRE grant program. Equally so, it makes sense to build features into the program which would help ensure that the FIRE grant program will remain dedicated solely to the fire and Emergency Medical Services, EMS, communities and will not be diluted over time into a generic terrorism-prevention program. Our amendment carefully strikes this balance.

The third major focus of this amendment is on finding ways to improve safety and to save lives. We do this in a number of ways. First, we have teamed up with national fire service organizations to incorporate firefighter safety research into the fire prevention and safety set-aside program. This new research, supported by a 20 percent increase in funds for the prevention and safety set-aside, would help reduce the number of firefighter fatalities each year and would dramatically improve the health and welfare of firefighters nationwide.

Second, we place an increased emphasis on Emergency Medical Services. In most communities, the fire department is the chief provider for all emergency services, including EMS. To illustrate this point, a 2002 National Fire Protection Association study indicates that fire departments received more than seven times as many calls for EMS assistance as they did for fires. When our family members, neighbors, and friends need immediate medical help, we turn to EMS providers, and we rely on this help to be as effective and timely as possible. It is our duty in structuring the FIRE grant program, then, to do everything we can to give EMS squads the assistance they need to carry out this important mission.

Despite the overwhelming ratio of EMS calls to fire calls, the FIRE grant program has not adequately reflected the importance of EMS over the past few years, with about 1 percent of all grants going specifically for EMS purposes. While there is no question that a number of other grants have indirectly benefited EMS and that departments do invest their own money into this service, more can and should be done through the FIRE Act to boost our EMS capabilities nationwide. To accomplish this goal, we do a number of things in the amendment, including specifically including fire-based EMS professionals in the peer review process and allowing EMS grant requests to be combined with those for equipment and training. We have already seen evidence that new, combined structure is making excellent progress this year in shifting a greater emphasis to EMS within the program.

Additionally, we include language to incorporate independent, nonprofit EMS squads into the FIRE grant program for the first time. While our work with national fire service organizations on this particular provision has been productive and is ongoing, its intent is clear-and that is to try to bring the emphasis within the FIRE grant program on EMS closer to the level of demand in the field for this life-saving service. I am pleased that we have this language in the amendment and believe that through markup in the Commerce Committee next month, and perhaps later during conference consideration of the underlying bill, we can find an even better solution for increasing support for EMS.

Third, we create a new incentive program within the FIRE Act that encourages departments to invest in life-saving Automated External Defibrillator, AED, devices. These devices are capable of dramatically reducing the number one cause of firefighter death in the line of duty-heart attacks. Our incentive program essentially says to fire departments that if you equip each of your firefighting vehicles with a defibrillator unit, we will give you a one-time discount on your matching requirement. Congress has expressed, time and again, strong support for getting these devices out to communities through various grant programs. It is our hope that we can maintain that commitment by extending support for lifesaving defibrillator technologies to fire departments across the country.

Fourth, we eliminate a burdensome and unintended matching requirement for fire prevention grants. These grants generally go to non-profit organizations, such as National SAFE KIDS, to provide for fire safety awareness campaigns, smoke detector installations in low-income housing, and other important prevention efforts. Though no match was required in the first few years of the program, a recent legal opinion from the Office of Domestic Preparedness has reversed course and instituted a 10 percent match for grantees. This unanticipated requirement, which is extremely difficult for nonprofits with limited capital, has had a debilitating effect on the prevention program and needs to be eliminated. Our legislation does just that.

Together, these commonsense features of our amendment would dramatically improve the safety of our communities, as well as the firefighters who bravely serve them.

The fourth section of this amendment centers on a comprehensive review of the FIRE grant program. This review, to be conducted in part by the National Fire Protection Association, and in part by the General Accounting Office, GAO, seeks to evaluate the program with an eye toward ensuring that resources are targeted to the areas of greatest need. A similar study by the National Fire Protection Association conducted shortly after passage of the initial FIRE Act was extremely helpful as far as identifying the nature of the fire service needs. Ultimately, this part of the amendment is about making sure that the billions of taxpayer dollars authorized by this legislation are used in the most responsible and effective manner possible.

Our amendment is a good amendment. It is comprehensive and collaboratively drafted with input from fire and emergency services experts from across the country. The National Safe Kids Campaign, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Volunteer Fire Council, the International Association of Arson Investigators, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, and the National Fire Protection Association, among others, all support our legislation.

Furthermore, the process agreed upon between Senators DODD, MCCAIN, and WARNER for consideration of our amendment is a good process. Senator McCain, in his capacity as chairman of the Committee of jurisdiction-the Commerce Committee-has graciously agreed to allow our amendment to be attached to the underlying bill, with the expectation that language reported out of his committee next month will be inserted in its place during conference negotiations. This arrangement gives our legislation the best possible opportunity to pass the Senate, with the added benefit of thorough deliberative consideration through the committee structure. I appreciate Chairman McCain's, and ranking member HOLLINGS' willingness to take this approach, Senator Dodd's hard work to reach a positive resolution to the matter, and Senators WARNER and LEVIN's willingness to facilitate this agreement by accepting the amendment at this time. The efforts of all three Senators deserve the praise of the firefighting community.

As was the case in 2000, the Department of Defense authorization bill has become the vehicle of choice for the FIRE Act legislation. I am optimistic that the final result this year will be the same as it was then, concluding with passage of our amendment into law. I am proud to introduce this amendment with my friend and colleague from Connecticut and look forward to working to ensure that the Federal Government increases its commitment to the men and women who make up our local fire departments. We owe them and their service and dedication nothing less than our full support.

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