Barbara Mikulski

Increase Training and Equipment for Firefighters - Oct. 14, 2005

Barbara Mikulski
October 14, 2004— U.S. Senate, Washington, DC
Congressional floor speech
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I am going to speak about the compelling needs of our local fire departments.

All of us, over the weekend, went to events commemorating September 11, 2001. We all spoke about how much we admired those men and women who stood up to defend the nation, including those very brave first responders at the World Trade Center who dashed up over 75 floors in burning buildings to try to rescue people. They put themselves on the line, and many of them, as we know, perished on that horrible day.

Here in the Washington, D.C. area, as we know, the Pentagon was hit. We had 60 Marylanders die that day. We had some die at the World Trade Center, but the majority was at the Pentagon. We had people die on those airlines, including a flight attendant who gave her life and was one of the people who tried to deal with the situation.

We had others who died on those planes, such as a family who was leaving on a sabbatical – a husband and wife who were academics, with their two children. Again, we had people die at the Pentagon, such as one young man from Baltimore who was a financial analyst over at the Pentagon.

Of those from Maryland who died at the Pentagon, 24 came from one county – Prince George's County. They were primarily African-Americans who worked in the financial services area of the Pentagon. Imagine, 24 people, such as Odessa Morris who had just celebrated her 25th anniversary; or Max Bielke, who had been in the military and when he retired, he went back to work as a civilian employee because he loved it. He was the last man to leave Vietnam. He stamped all the papers at our Embassy there. He was the last soldier out of Vietnam.

At the same time, we were proud of the Maryland response. I was particularly proud of the Chevy Chase rescue team. This is a volunteer fire department in Montgomery County that dashed across the Potomac under the doctrine of mutual aid to provide firefighting assistance on that horrible day, joining with our local fire departments from Northern Virginia and Rescue One from Chevy Chase, and stayed on the scene in order to be able to quell the fires that continued to burn. They were part of a FEMA search and rescue unit and they provided help. They were the ones who brought in the dogs to look for survivors. They were there night and day for several days and weeks.

I was very proud of the Chevy Chase firefighters and of all our fire departments in Maryland who went up to the World Trade Center to dig in the wreckage to see if they could find any survivors. Again, the Chevy Chase Fire Department is a volunteer fire department. They serve their community and country on their own time and their own dime. It cost the Chevy Chase Fire Department over $300,000 to be able to be on the job. They did it willingly, unstintingly. Yet at the same time, we know those local fire departments cannot continue to function when we go on Orange Alert, and they continue on their own time and on their own dime.

One of the great things we created was the Fire Grant Program. The Fire Grant Program was an invention before 9/11 of Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) and me as part of a FEMA reform package, along with Congressmen Hoyer (D-MD) and Weldon (R-PA) in the House. We did it in a bipartisan effort to make sure our fire departments – particularly our volunteer fire departments – had the right equipment they needed to protect the protectors, and also the updated technology to be able to protect us.

When we created that program as part of FEMA, well before September 11, 2001, it was authorized at $300 million. After 9/11, the need was so compelling, we worked, again, on a bipartisan, bicameral basis, to authorize the fire grant program at $900 million. What else do we know? We know there is compelling need. We know the fire administration, just in 2003, received almost 20,000 applications totaling $2.5 billion in funding requests for local fire departments.

Imagine that. The fire administration received requests for $2.5 billion. Yet because of funding at around the $700 million level, they could only fund 8,900 of those 20,000 requests. So we know the need is in the billions. We know we are authorized at the $900 million level.

What my amendment will do, when I have the opportunity to offer it, is raise funding for fire grants to the authorized level of $900 million. Why do we want to do that? We are facing new threats every day. Just over a month ago, when the administration raised the terror alert to Orange for the communities of Washington, D.C., New York City, and New Jersey, we knew what the needs really were.

The bill we are considering today actually has funding at $700 million. I know on Friday an amendment offered by majority leader, Senator Frist (R-TN), actually increased it by $50 million. I will be offering an amendment at an appropriate time to raise it another $150 million so that we can bring it up to the authorized level of $900 million.

What would this additional $150 million mean? It would mean protective gear for 150,000 firefighters. It means local fire departments could buy 500 new fire trucks. It means they could buy 300 new rescue vehicles. But this is not about protective gear and fire trucks; it is about the tools our firefighters need.

First of all, they need the equipment to protect themselves, such as breathing equipment and fire retardation gear. We need to protect the protectors so they can protect us. Then, at the same time, they need other technology. We know that this program gives us double value. If our first responders have the right equipment, they are ready to respond against not only a terrorist attack, but anything else that may happen to a community.

During those hurricanes that have been whipping Florida, we have had our first responders there, and they have the right equipment, as well as the radio equipment, to respond.

It also means the kind of equipment that we need not only when the Chevy Chase Fire and Rescue Department dashes across the Potomac but what they need if something happens on the beltway.

We in Baltimore had a terrible tanker explosion on I-95. Because our firefighters were prepared, they could deal with the hazmat situation. I could give a number of examples.

This is not just Barbara Mikulski speaking. The Council on Foreign Relations, chaired by our former colleague, Senator Rudman--and we know the independence he has--issued an independent report last year. We also know he was the author of many balanced budget amendments. So we know he approaches it with Yankee common sense and the frugality for which he is very well known. So we have Senator Rudman, an independent personality, one who has always been frugal from a budget standpoint, and yet he is recommending more money.

What did the report show? That the United States remains ill prepared for a catastrophic attack; that fire departments across the country have only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift; breathing apparatus for just one-third of our firefighters; and that only 10 percent of fire departments have the equipment to respond to a building collapse. That is the Rudman report.

Then Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Fire Protection Association also did a study called “A Needs Assessment of the U.S. Fire Service.” They found that 57,000 firefighters lacked the protective clothing they needed to protect themselves to protect us.

In Maryland alone, it would take $52 million to replace protective gear for all of our firefighters. This is what we are talking about.

We do not want to just throw money at problems. We believe the fire grant is a model program because we refuse to earmark the grants. They are subject to peer review, so they are given on the basis of priority and merit. We know what our shortcomings are, and these various reports document them.

We talked about how last year there were 20,000 applicants and $2.5 billion worth of requests. That speaks for itself. We have double value for this spending, not only for response to terrorist attacks but against all hazards, whether it is hurricanes, tornadoes, or the wildfires that hit the West. We need to be able to protect the local fire departments.

We know how expensive this equipment can be. Firefighters cannot do this on bingos and fish fries. Firefighters need the U.S. Government to stand behind them to buy the necessary equipment.

There are over a million firefighters in the United States, of which there are 750,000 volunteers. Isn't that terrific? They really do save lives; they save homes; they save communities. We need to save them and to help them. They do not know what they are going to face when they enter a house to save a child trapped on the second floor. They may put out the flames in a factory that contains toxic chemicals. They are the first on the scene at any disaster.

Firefighters are our protectors. Many are volunteers who work three shifts: one on a regular job, one with their families, and then another shift at the fire department. As I said, they cannot also then be expected to raise the money through charity, tip jars and bingo. We always want local community support, but the equipment and gear they need is very expensive. A new fire engine costs $300,000. A new rescue vehicle costs $500,000. Self-contained breathing apparatus costs $6,000.

The Fire Grant Program is working. In my own community, the Forestville fire department, located in Prince George's County, was awarded funds for a new hydrant tanker. Why is that so important? The last one contained just a couple of hundred gallons, where this one is over 2,500. This is right next door to Andrews Air Force Base. Any attack on the United States would mean they would have to respond under doctrine of mutual aid.

It is the same with the Kensington volunteer fire department in Montgomery County. We replaced a pumper truck that is dated to 1979. I could go all around the State of Maryland.