As 2011 ended, we marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most influential pieces of legislation involving the nation's fire service. In 1971, the United States Congress appropriated funding to establish the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. Up to this point, subjects such as fire suppression, fire prevention and related topics were perceived not to be a national problem but a local issue.
After two years of work, the Commission released its report entitled "America Burning." The report was groundbreaking for its time. It called for a national fire academy, the development and enforcement of uniform building codes and the establishment of a national fire administration, along with other initiatives. The report estimated that 12,000 people were dying annually as the result of fires in this nation.
"America Burning" also recommended that more emphasis be placed on fire prevention, increased training of fire service personnel and educating the public about fire safety.
In 1987, the USFA convened a workshop to examine the changes that had taken place as a result of the Commission's recommendations and to develop plans for the fire service that would take us into the 21st century.
In 1999, President Clinton appointed a panel "to reexamine the evolving role of the fire services in the safety and sustainability of today's American communities." The commission's report reached two major conclusions:
1. "The frequency and severity of fires in America is a result of our nation's failure to adequately apply and fund known loss reduction strategies. The primary responsibility for fire prevention, suppression and action on other hazards dealt with by the fire services properly rests with state and local government. Nevertheless, a substantial role exists for the federal government in funding and technical support."
2. The panel's chair, George K. Bernstein, stated, "Until the USFA is empowered by funding and staffing to truly become the leader in our nation's firefighting efforts, unless the fire services are adequately funded, and unless local communities enforce known fire preventive and suppression measures, the establishment of this commission and its efforts to develop recommendations will have been an exercise in futility."
The reason I have given you this historical information is because it appears that the current congressional leadership is about to diverge from this four-decade-old policy. Recently the U.S. House and Senate passed the Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations Plan.
The 2012 spending plan lowers the amount of funding for the AFG and SAFER programs to $337.5 million. This is a collective reduction of $135 million from FY 2011, when both programs were funded at $405 million. The USFA is cut by $1.5 million, and the program's budget is now more than 40 percent less than it was in 2002.
Congress further reduced the amount available to other Homeland Security Initiatives, including Urban Areas Security Initiative, the State Homeland Security Grant Program and Citizen Corps. These programs were cut by nearly 50 percent from their 2011 funding levels.
We have made substantial progress in the fire service in America since the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control first issued its report. Civilian fire deaths have decreased by 66 percent, and firefighter fatalities have dropped from 157 to 87 in 2010.
At the same time, the number of calls answered by our nation's firefighters has continued to increase. Now a fire call is received every 1.18 seconds in our country. Also, the number of firefighters answering these alarms has been drastically reduced.
In particular, the number of volunteer firefighters in this country has dropped by 10 percent in the past 25 years. During that same time, the average age of volunteer firefighters has increased dramatically. In 2009, the percentage of volunteer firefighters over the age of 50 was 21.8 percent; this is nearly double the amount it was just 12 years earlier.
The fire service in America needs to respond to related cuts in the federal budget, and we need to do it quickly. In the time it took you to read this article, fire departments in our nation responded to nearly 200 alarms.
We need to tell our federal legislators that the foundation laid by the Commission on Fire Prevention and Control needs to be supported and built upon rather than destroyed. We need to tell them that programs like AFG, SAFER and the Fire Prevention and Safety Grants are working and now is not the time to take steps backward.