Q&A: CFSI executive director on fire service politics, funding
Bill Webb discusses the state of CFSI and the greatest threat to the fire service's political influence
The Congressional Fire Services Institute, a nonprofit and privately funded organization, was created in 1989 to address the concerns and needs of the fire and emergency services.
Bill Webb, who has served as executive director of CFSI since 1995, works closely with members of Congress and fire service leaders to develop federal legislation so first responders can get the necessary training and funding needed to keep their departments running.
And while CFSI doesn't receive any federal support, they do get welcome backing from organizations and individuals that believe in their mission.
I talked to Webb about where the fire service is today, his predictions on how the Congressional landscape will change after the 2016 election and if we should be spending more time and money on wildland-urban interface issues.
Fire Chief: How does the fire service stack up today vs post 9/11?
Webb: Little has changed in terms of the message we continue to deliver to members of Congress both before and after 9/11. Fire departments across the nation face many challenges in terms of equipment, staffing and training.
Yes, 9/11 was a wake-up call for all Americans, including our elected officials. But as we move further away from that tragic day, political leaders need to be constantly reminded that the fire service's role remains unchanged. They must be prepared for all threats — including the emerging threats. That is the message we continue to deliver to our elected officials.
How did it get that way and how does it stack up to other groups like veterans or police?
The fire service is not out there competing against any other groups for federal funding. When we address our issues on Capitol Hill, we speak about our own needs. We do not ask Congress to fund our programs at the expense of programs benefiting other groups. There's no need to pick fights.
Instead, we often look for coalitions to advance our issues. For many years, we have been working closely with law enforcement on the Public Safety Officers Benefits program. This program provides a sizable benefit to family members when someone in public safety — including fire and law enforcment – dies or becomes disabled in the line of duty.
The Department of Justice has not been processing the PSOB claims in a timely fashion. In fact, DOJ has a backlog of over 600 cases pending. Together, fire and law enforcement have been engaging DOJ officials in discussions to addresss this problem. It's much more productive when groups can work together to address issues of common concern.
Any predictions on how the Congressional landscape will change after the 2016 election?
The political winds will change many times before the 2016 elections so I can't speculate on the congressional landscape. But what I can say is that the fire service has always been able to adapt to changes in the political landscape following presidential and congressional elections. That's because we've never taken a partisan approach to our work; we've always worked with both sides of the political aisle.
What's the state of the fire caucus?
While Congressional Fire Services Caucus membership has trended down in recent years, we have more members actively engaged in our issues. Can we expect these members to support us on all issues? No, nor should we expect them to. But we should always be grateful to members whenever they are willing to roll-up their sleeves and help us on specific issues.
What will happen to the caucus when McCain and Biden retire?
Caucus recruitment is an ongoing initiative. Keep in mind that the Fire Caucus was first established in 1987. The only remaining original co-chair is Sen. John McCain. A lot of folks thought the caucus would lose its efficacy when its founder Congressman Weldon left congress in 2006.
There's no question that Congressman Weldon was the catalyst that made things happen for so many years. He was our go-to guy. But following his departure from Congress, we've had other members step forward and become more involved.
What's the greatest threat to the fire service's political influence?
Complacency is the greatest threat to any effort on Capitol Hill. Since 2001, Congress has appropriated over $9 billion in AFG/SAFER funding. The fire service should never assume that the funding will always be there.
Each year, CFSI and the other major fire service organizations spend considerable time and effort urging Congress to maintain its support for these programs. We've all heard the adage: "The squeaky wheel gets the grease." That certainly holds true on Capitol Hill. Being complacent will run the risk of losing many of the gains we have achieved on Capitol Hill.
What percentage of your efforts is spent on wildland firefighting issues?
As a native Oregonian, I've always had a strong interest in the wildland-urban interface. What we are witnessing in the western region with these major conflagrations is very disturbing. While I would like to see CFSI more engaged in this issue, the issue is bigger than any one organization.
Working in collaboration with other stakeholder groups, like the National Fire Protection Association, the International Association of Wildland Fire and the International Code Council, we can identify strategies to address the issue. Sure, we can support more funding in the U.S. Forest Service's suppression budget, but that will not solve the problem. What we need first and foremost is for local governments to come to their collective senses and make better zoning decisions.
Over the span of your career, what's been the toughest fire service problem to fix that required a political solution?
I've been in this position for over 20 years and I can't recall a tough problem that required a political solution. Sure, we've dealt with some issues among the national organizations and on Capitol Hill. But I can't recall an instance where we allowed a contentious issue to fester for too long. The strength of CFSI lies within our mission — building consensus — and our ability to succeed depends on the cooperation and support from other national organizations who have been with us since 1989.
What's the state of CFSI? Does it have enough money and support?
I truly believe CFSI is doing some good work in our nation's capital, but we could always do more. I mentioned earlier I would like to see us get more involved in addressing issues in the wildland-urban interface.
Additionally, there are a myriad of other issues of importance to the fire service that CFSI could play a larger role in, including communications, disaster preparedness and firefighter health and safety initiatives. But in order to address these issues, like any organization, we need staffing and resources.
What's the biggest political threat to the fire service that most may not be aware of?
I am not aware of any political threats to the fire service — that is as long as we stay alert and active. Our organization is not doing its work if Congress broadsides us with an issue. We have some outstanding professional staffers on Capitol Hill who keep us apprised of legislative activities. We communicate with them daily to help us track our issues and make us aware of any potential actions on our issues.
But as far as a political threat, my message to the fire service is to never take anything for granted. It is naïve to think that Congress will continue to fund our programs because of who we are. In 2011, Congress approved the Budget Control Act, which forces Congress to cut spending by $2 trillion dollars over a 10-year period. This is a reason for every firefighter in the country who has benefited from federal fire program to give pause and consider becoming more involved in the efforts of CFSI and the other national fire organizations.