Testimony of Michael E. O’Neil
South Burlington Fire Department
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
March 12, 2002
Mr. Chairman, Let me begin by extending greetings from the Vermont fire service. We appreciate the important discussions and deliberations that you are involved in. I would like to address this committee on a few issues that have been the subject of much debate in our small state that we like to think reflects the ongoing national discussion. The focus is the ability of our nations fire service to be properly equipped to respond to the myriad of events that only a few short years ago would be viewed as scenarios from a movie script. There never has been a doubt that the American fire service would be called on to respond to any situation. We do it every day. We do not choose what types of incidents that we will respond to and which ones we won't. I believe, as a Fire Chief, I owe it to the firefighters who respond to calls for help from our citizens, to be as prepared and protected as is possible. As I sit here before you today, I know that I cannot do that because our communities cannot afford to provide that protection. The need is real. We cannot continue to send our firefighters out without the proper protection. We would not send our servicemen and women to foreign soil ill prepared to perform, why should our front line home security forces be any different.
When the White House proposed through the Office of Homeland Defense, giving $3.5 billion in federal aid to state and local first‑responders, America's front line soldiers ‑ firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians to prepare for terrorist actions the fire service believed that it was going to be able to solve a long standing barrier to effectiveness . . . . lack of adequate funding.
We view the First Responder Initiative as extremely important in getting money directly to departments large and small for basic needs such as equipment and training, and supplying specialized equipment and training to larger urban departments where the greater possibility of terrorist acts exists.
In his remarks on Tuesday morning at the National Emergency Managers Association Conference, Governor Ridge voiced his strong support for first responders in the President's proposed budget. He feels very strongly that equipment, training, exercises, and resources are needed by the nations first line of defense. However, Governor Ridge reiterated the administration's position that funding should to the states and not directly to local government. We respectfully disagree. Past history, at least in Vermont has been that when the State is finished utilizing grant funds to better equip state resources, very little has found it's way to the local level. We have been told for the last 3 years that any state resources won't be available for up to several hours after an incident and that we as first responders will be on our own for that time frame. We did not have to have this fact pointed out to us, we already knew that from past experience. My point is that now when the state resources arrive several hours later they have better, more up to date equipment and we as the first responders have not received any equipment. The Cities of Burlington and South Burlington have met with state officials with a number of projects, including much needed communication system upgrades that focused on inter‑operability and regional responses. The projects have not been acted on because vital funding has gone to other state agencies. What funding has been left over is so small that it has not been sufficient to be effective. We resort to makeshift solutions in the field while important funding is utilized in other areas. I can find no better illustration of this situation than this: The staff of the state medical examiners office are better protected than are the men and women who respond every day to protect Vermont citizens from whatever crisis unfolds.
Recent events have demonstrated once and for all the role of America's fire service in responding to and mitigating disasters, terrorist or otherwise. We truly are America's first line of defense against all risk hazards, including hazardous materials, terrorist events, emergency search and rescue, fire suppression and emergency medical services. And now, we need your help.
Last year, Congress provided $ 100 million in funding for the Assistance to Firefighters program for fiscal year 2001. However, after announcing the grant program, FEMA received nearly 30,000 applications for assistance totaling about $2.9 billion. Because of the added responsibilities of the fire service, its role in response to disasters, and the potential for that role to be expanded, funding at much higher levels is required. Local jurisdictions simply do not have the resources to independently fund the improvements to respond to new challenges.
The number of grant applications for the Assistance to Firefighters program has demonstrated the need for fire service funding for equipment, training, fire prevention, and apparatus. Enactment of the First Responders Initiative, beginning in 2002, can help to ensure that fire departments are prepared for a higher scale and scope of incidents. First, the Initiative can provide funding for significantly higher levels of training in mass casualty events, tactical command and control, fire fighter safety, and managing chemical, biological and other potential events. Second, fire fighters and fire department leaders must be trained and equipped to provide comprehensive response and support to federal disaster response teams. Responses to incidents will come first from the local and regional levels before federal support is available and those responders must accomplish evacuation, containment, mitigation, and other immediate functions prior to the arrival of outside assistance. More importantly, the local responders must ensure that their actions are consistent with contemporary professional standards so as not to exacerbate the problem.
Additional funding to support increased fire service staffing is necessary to ensure that enough fire fighters are available to protect U.S. citizen immediately after a significant incident occurs. Fire departments require federal support to fund additional fire fighters. During terrorist events, the military and other federal personnel are committed to other activities thereby requiring local areas to be much more dependent on local fire service. Relying more on local resources when outside resources are scarce means that communities have few options other than the local fire department. Unfortunately, many fire department operating budgets have been reduced during the last decade because fires have decreased. These reductions have been without regard to requirements to respond to other missions. An increase in staffing will allow the fire service to respond to an expanding list of responsibilities more safely and more effectively, including homeland security issues.
Limited staffing reduces a fire department's ability to respond to a terrorist event where resources are needed quickly and in quantity. Early intervention in a terrorist event can influence the number of lives saved in the early moments after an attack. Response to attacks and arrival by the fire service will occur within three to five minutes after an incident takes place and remain until the incident is resolved. No other consequence management resource can respond this quickly.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush made a commitment to a sustained strategy for increased homeland security. The President has made clear that he considers a critical component of this strategy to be increased federal funding for America's fire and emergency service. In order to ensure that the full benefits of this increased funding are realized by the American people, we urge you and Congress to enact the First Responders Initiative to provide funding for the fire and emergency services. The mechanisms to get necessary resources to local responders are in place. Let's use them. By using this existing program, Congress can ensure that appropriated funds quickly reach America's fire service‑then only people in the United States who are situated locally and trained, equipped, and sworn to respond within minutes to all incidents, natural or man-made, which threaten the American homeland.
In 1997, the Departments of Defense and Justice began training and equipping local firefighters and police to deal with incidents of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction. Similar programs have since been authorized by Congress, bringing the Department of Health and Human Services, FEMA, and other federal agencies into the effort. Without doubt we have made progress, but preparedness efforts need to be more clearly focused.
Mr. Chairman, the American Fire Service has been strongly supportive of FEMA. The reason for this is simple. They have earned the support of the fire and emergency service based on a proven track record of providing invaluable training, equipment, and resources to America’s local “first responder” community both on scene and disaster sites and during the ongoing planning and training that all responder organizations must constantly pursue. They clearly recognize that America's local fire departments are the first line of disaster response in this country.
It is for this reason that we encourage Congress to utilize this Agency as you look to significantly enhance and improve America's readiness capabilities President Bush has budgeted an unprecedented amount of federal support for America's “first responders” in the name of homeland security. We strongly urge Congress to utilize existing formats, specifically the Assistance to Firefighters grant program administered by FEMA, to ensure that these funds are quickly disbursed to the local responders who will use them efficiently and effectively to provide for the security of the American homeland.
Thank you Senators on behalf of the American Fire Service.