By Bill Webb
Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) Executive Director
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark report, America Burning. A must-read for fire service officials, America Burning brought together many of the brightest minds in the fire service to develop a report that captured the seriousness of the nation’s fire problem and proffered meaningful recommendations for reducing the destructive force of fire in our nation. It’s a rarity among federal documents: the message contained in the report to a large extent is as meaningful and cogent today as it was 40 years ago.
A member of the CFSI Board of Directors, Louis J. Amabili, served on the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. The former Director of the Delaware State Fire Training School, Lou is one of the commission’s few surviving members. Forty years later, Lou speaks of a very positive experience working side-by-side with his fellow commissioners as they gathered data, conducted interviews and discussed recommendations for addressing the nation’s fire problem. It was a two-year effort with much of the work performed by the commissioners themselves.
The built environment, wildland fires, burn victims, transportation of hazardous materials, fire safety education, and research: these were the many issues the commission members cogitated. They were the salient issues at the time just as they are today. Chapter 19 of the report outlined the need for a significant federal role, calling for a U.S. Fire Administration.
One year after the release of the report, Congress approved the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 which authorized the creation of the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration. In 1978, Congress changed the name to United States Fire Administration (USFA). Originally domiciled in the Department of Commerce, USFA was placed in FEMA in 1979, the same year the National Fire Academy was established.
Obviously, members of Congress back then recognized that America Burning was more than just another federal report; this one had traction. It presented a strong, justifiable case for creating a new federal agency for our nation’s fire and emergency services. But as Lou Amabili has pointed out many times, while Congress did its part establishing USFA, it never provided the financial resources for the agency to fulfill its core missions.
America Burning called for $153 million in annual funding. That was forty years ago. I’m not an economist so I can’t adjust that to today’s dollar figure, but its safe to say that it would far exceed the $44 million USFA received in Fiscal Year 2012.
As we look ahead at the future of USFA, we need to realize that “our federal agency” cannot deliver on its mission if its funding level continues on a downward path. In September, CFSI conducted a briefing for congressional staff to discuss USFA’s role with the fire service. A House Science, Space and Technology Committee room packed with congressional staff heard from Dr. John Hall with NFPA, Steve Edwards with the North American Fire Training Directors, and Vickie Pritchett with Common Voice as they impressed on the need for continued congressional support for USFA. While Dr. Hall spoke of the value of the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) in developing NFPA’s many reports, Edwards addressed the role of the National Fire Academy vis-a-vie the state training academies, and Pritchett directed her comments at USFA’s educational materials and programs and their benefits at the local level. Their messages that day are ones we will need to share with all 535 members who will serve in Congress next session.
If the fire service wants to remain relevant at the federal level, we’ll need a strong, vibrant and effective federal agency that will have the ability to grow, explore, and create rather than contract. This is something we should all think about as we approach 2013 and the 40th anniversary of America Burning. Regardless of the outcome of the November elections, both Congress and the Administration will continue to scrutinize federal programs and agency budgets for cuts or elimination. This is a town where the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Together, we should apply our collective efforts in 2013 to providing as much grease as possible to USFA; otherwise, the 40th anniversary will come and go with little to celebrate.