One year later: The loss of Sen. John McCain, friend of the fire service

His passing marks the end of a long tenure as an advocate for the fire service and federal funding in the industry

Winston Churchill once said, “A man makes a living by what he gets, but he makes a life by what he gives.” To me, this quote embodies the life of Sen. John McCain, III.

Much has been written about the senator’s life and his service to our country as a military hero and as a statesman. As we mourn the loss and celebrate his life, we also need to include the important role he played in advancing the fire service in America.

The origins of AFG

Sen. John McCain speaks with firefighter Thom Yuneman, Friday, July 5, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz.
Sen. John McCain speaks with firefighter Thom Yuneman, Friday, July 5, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

It has been 19 years since the passage of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program by Congress. A large percentage of those serving in the fire service today have never known life without a federal grant program. However, prior to 2000, there was none. Even though the landmark document “America Burning” first recommended one in 1973, Congress had never moved forward. Then, in the late 1990s, several members of Congress began to discuss advancing legislation to authorize such a grant program. However, one must consider the political climate of those times to better understand the effort it took to pass this legislation.

In 2000, the Republican Party held control of both houses of Congress by substantial margins. The Republicans elected in the previous four years shared a philosophy that big government was the problem and taxes needed to be lowered. Passing a bill to give federal funding to fire departments was completely opposite of this thinking. Congress had just tried to impeach President Bill Clinton in January, 1999.

One of the prime movers of the fire service funding initiative was Congressman Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey. A few years ago, Pascrell shared the story of the struggle to get the program passed. Pascrell went to the White House and outlined the proposed program to President Clinton. Clinton asked a few questions and then he said, “Bill, if you can get the Republicans on board and they vote for it, I will sign the bill into law.”

With this in mind, the group began to look for Republican support, and one of the first legislators to come onboard was Sen. McCain. At that time, McCain chaired the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, one of the largest committees in the Senate. After reviewing the legislation, McCain became one of its passionate supporters. The Assistance to Firefighters Grant program, also known as AFG or the FIRE Act grant program, was established by Title XVII of the 2001 Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act and signed into law by Clinton on Oct. 30, 2000.

Reauthorization of the AFG

Since its establishment, the AFG program has been reauthorized three times. The first reauthorization was Title XXXVI of the 2005 Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 108-375), which authorized the program through 2009. The second reauthorization was Title XVIII, Subtitle A of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (P.L. 112239), which authorized the program through 2017. Each time, McCain played a key role in sponsoring and shepherding the legislation through the Senate.

In 2017, the fire service became concerned about the future of the AFG program. A portion of the 2012 reauthorization legislation contained a sunset provision that would have terminated the program if it were not approved for 2018. With the election of a new president and the constant bickering and battles in Congress, the threat to the continued existence of the program was real. As he had in the past, McCain stepped forward and in unprecedented fashion was able to get the AFG program reauthorized to 2023 without a single “No” vote through its entire process in the Senate. In today’s political climate, that alone speaks volumes about McCain’s drive and passion to support the fire service.

Honoring Sen. McCain’s commitment

Among other organizations, in 2017, the Congressional Fire Services Institute honored McCain with its Legislator of the Year award for the third time. It was presented in recognition of his work on the AFG/SAFER/USFA reauthorization legislation. CFSI also honored the senator in 2006 for his work on public safety communications and in 2001 for the legislation that established the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. Because of his commitment and dedication, our nation is a safer place to live and our firefighters are better prepared and protected to face the dangers that every new alarm may bring.

Sen. McCain, thank you for your support, and rest easy, brother; we'll take it from here. You will be missed, and we will never forget you and your service to our community.

This article, originally published on Sept. 20, 2018, has been updated

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