Anyone who was paying even the slightest attention in the days following Sept. 11, 2001 will remember President Bush donning a New York Fire Department helmet at ground zero. During those days, the president spoke of redoubling efforts to ensure that America’s “first responders”—the firemen and medical technicians who arrive on a disaster scene first—are properly funded. There was a general national sentiment that, now more than ever, such emergency services must be given their due.
Yet it has gone largely unnoticed that in the summer of 2002, Bush actually vetoed a bill that made it out of Congress with bipartisan support which would have allocated an addit-ional $2.5 billion to the nation’s first responders. Instead, according to articles in Congressional Quarterly, The New York Times and the Washington Post, Bush, with Congress following his lead, has taken away existing first responder funding while adding some new funding, amounting to no net increase. Since Sept. 11, many disaster service personnel nationwide say that their funding has actually decreased or leveled off. These national reports are echoed by local Montana first responders.
“From the Fire Service end of things, it really is a concern because we just haven’t had any federal support,” says Missoula Fire Chief Tom Steenberg, who was promoted to the Chief’s job in February. “And one of our issues right now is that the U.S. Fire Administration is part of FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], and there’s some big budget cuts going on there right now.”
Steenberg explains that local fire departments have been asked to cover more and more territory after Sept. 11 without a corresponding increase in funds.
“We used to just fight fires. That was our job years and years ago,” he says.
Now, Steenberg says, firefighters make emergency medical calls, deal with hazardous materials, wildland fires, river rescues and, on top of that, are expected to be prepared to handle post-9/11 bio-terrorism issues.
Increased expectations, without additional resources and funding, add up to a Fire Service stretched almost impossibly thin. If Montana’s fire departments were to receive substantial federal funding, Steenberg says it could be used to create a statewide response network. Currently, no such network exists, so if and when multiple departments are called upon to deal with an emergency, issues like equipment compatibility and training can be expected to emerge as problems.
Thus far, funding of local fire departments by the federal government has come through the National Fire Grant Act. Steenberg says that the Missoula Fire Department submitted an application for a $16,000 grant last Thursday, but he’s not holding his breath; his department was denied a similar grant last year.
“It’s very tough, frankly, to compete nationwide when there’s a lot of Fire Service organizations, even around the state of Montana, whose needs are greater than [Missoula’s]…There were tens of thousands of applications” for a nationwide total of only $750 million in grant money.
To make matters worse, Congress is currently considering cutting Fire Act grant funds, Steenberg says.
“I think the Fire Service was hoping that would go in the opposite direction.”
At last year’s initial meeting of the Montana Homeland Security Task Force, the group offered a statement that read, in part, “State agencies’ ability to respond to requests and needs has been stretched beyond their current personnel and financial resources. State agencies have a lack of personnel depth in preparing for and responding to the scope of a terrorism incident.”
According to James Greene, director of Montana’s Disaster and Emergency Services (DES) and a member of the task force, that statement remains valid. Greene is optimistic that additional funding for emergency response is on its way, though he notes that the Department of Homeland Security has said that major increases will not take place until 2004. Just last week, Congress allocated $1.3 billion of the $3.9 billion homeland security budget to state governments. Eighty percent of that $1.3 billion is expected to filter down to local governments. That’s still only about half of the amount approved by Congress last summer and vetoed by Bush, but if these funds do make their way to Montana, they will spell the end of a major funding drought for Greene’s office.
“The money that we [had] in the last eighteen months was all money that was appropriated by Congress prior to Sept. 11,” Greene says. “A lot of previous programs…have been dramatically declining. In our case, working with FEMA, the anti-terrorism money that we were getting from FEMA disappeared on Oct. 1, 2002.”
“It’s been a very frustrating eighteen months,” Greene says.
In light of Bush’s early talk of redoubling homeland security efforts, is the general public aware that the nation’s firefighters and disaster and emergency personnel are struggling?
“I sometimes get the feeling that, because of what the president said after Sept. 11 about the first responders initiative, some people have the perception that there’s already been a lot of money for these activities, when in reality that has not been the case,” says Greene.
Chief Steenberg agrees.
“I think probably, overall, the public is not aware…that we have needs to be met. And I think part of that is because the nature of fire departments is that you do the best with the resources you have available. We don’t go out whining, you know?” Steenberg says.
Bush’s lack of follow-through on funding first responders has already been pinpointed as a target by several Democrats with presidential aspirations.
Asked if he found it frustrating that first responder funding may become a political football in 2004, Steenberg replies, “While it might be frustrating, I hope that they’re successful at getting us funding, because to me that’s the bottom line.”
To Steenberg, the matter of funding comes down to acknowledging the important service that first responders provide.
“Anybody that was old enough to watch TV saw, on 9/11, the firefighters going up the buildings and not coming out, so I don’t know that there could be any stronger wake-up call ever. Hopefully, our government officials will be well aware of the need and I think, statewide, they support us. How that translates into the feds actually funding us, I don’t know. I sure as heck hope [it will]. It seems like the government can fund a lot of things, you know? I’d hope we’d be up there, too.”