Presidential politics and the fire service: Understanding the connection

A review of presidential milestone moments for the fire service – and how we can continue to advance the fire safety mission


Elected politics continues to play a significant role in fire service circles. While there is a certain amount of insulation from elections at the local level, the connection of politics to the fire service is undeniably significant.

As we observe Presidents Day in the United States, let us reflect on presidential contributions, old and new, to the advancement of the fire service that we know today.

President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)

As we observe Presidents Day in the United States, let us reflect on presidential contributions, old and new, to the advancement of the fire service that we know today. (Photo/Getty)
As we observe Presidents Day in the United States, let us reflect on presidential contributions, old and new, to the advancement of the fire service that we know today. (Photo/Getty)

Few presidents, if any, have had the broad impact on the fire service as President Harry S. Truman.

In 1947, President Truman commissioned a three-day conference to discuss the reduction of fire deaths due to fire in the United States. With the death of 217 people in three large fires in 1946 serving as the impetus for the 1947 conference, President Truman addressed the 2,000 attendees of the National Conference on Fire Prevention with a sober reality: “But these fires which make headlines are only a small fraction of the total. Thousands of lives are lost annually, and tens of thousands of people are injured in the many less spectacular fires which occur hour after hour, and day after day, throughout the year.”

Considered a landmark event for the American fire service, in his opening address, President Truman’s called his interest in fire prevention “intense.” Attendees came away from the conference with three basic recommendations to reduce fire loss in the United States, known still today as the “3 Es”: engineering, enforcement and education.

Commenting on receipt of the final report from the conference, President Truman said to Conference Chair General Phillip Fleming: “Though this is a final report of the Continuing Committee, I personally feel that our battle against fire and fire hazards has only begun. As long as fire kills and injures so many people and destroys such vast amounts of property each year, we must all strive for better fire prevention and fire protection.”

Today, the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation strives to keep the president’s work on fire prevention alive and thriving.

In December 2019, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), working with the Truman Foundation, released a report based on the Truman Fire Forum held in May 2019. The event brought together fire service and constituent leaders from across the country, all focused on reviewing progress in fire safety. A renewed prevention effort will push for additional forums and progress toward lowering fire injury and fatality statistics in the United States.

In addition to recognizing the work of President Truman, the National Fire Academy has compiled a brief history of significant fire service milestones, tied to the terms of presidents in relatively recent memory. This list is by no means inclusive of all presidential impacts on the fire service; however, the impact of these presidents on the fire service as we know it today is significant.

President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969): Fire Research and Safety Act

In May 1968, the Department of Commerce was given a primary mission in fire research and safety when the 90th Congress passed, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed, the Fire Research and Safety Act of 1968. The Act established within the Department's National Bureau of Standards a fire research and safety center. It also directed the establishment of a National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. Congress directed the Commission to “undertake a comprehensive study and investigation to determine measures for reducing the destructive effects of fire throughout the country.”

President Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974): America Burning

The National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1971 and chaired by Professor Richard E. Bland of Pennsylvania State University, conducted two years of intensive study. The Commission sent out survey questionnaires to 27,000 fire departments nationwide, reviewed position papers from prominent fire organizations, interviewed more than 92 witnesses, and held five public hearings around the country, including Washington, DC, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

On May 4, 1973, the Commission transmitted its findings and 90 recommendations to President Nixon. Those recommendations were contained in a report titled America Burning.

President Gerald Ford (1974-1977): NFPCA

America Burning formed the framework for Congressional action in drafting the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, creating the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration (NFPCA). President Gerald Ford signed the Act.

President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981): USFA and NFA

In 1978, Congress changed the name of NFPCA to U.S. Fire Administration, and in 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s Reorganization Plan No. 3 placed the USFA within the newly created Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Also in 1979, the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland, was opened, offering courses and training to fire service personnel and other persons engaged in fire prevention and control.

More critical presidential milestones

Bill Webb, executive director of the Congressional Fire Service Institute (CFSI), shared several other presidential milestones in fire service history.

President George H.W. Bush signed legislation establishing the NFFF in 1992. He was also the first president to speak at the CFSI National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner, with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also speaking at the dinner in later years.

The Assistance to Firefighters Grant program is derived from the previously discussed Federal Fire Protection and Control Act of 1974, which was commonly called the FIRE Act. Originally signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, the AFG program was first funded by President George W. Bush in 2001 at $100,000,000. The AFG funding has fluctuated up and down between various Congressional sessions and presidents. (Note: The Fiscal Year 2019 AFG application period, which opened Feb 3, 2020, is funded for at $315,000,000.)

President George W. Bush was the first president to speak at the NFFF Memorial Weekend ceremony in 2001. President Bush would speak once again, in 2007. The only other president to speak at the ceremony is President Barack Obama in 2015.

President Donald Trump signed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act into law in 2018.

Protect people: Truman’s goal should be ours, too

The short historical review above shows how difficult elected politics can be for a cohesive strategy – and this reflects only a fraction of the presidents’ work, and a fraction of the greater political efforts aimed at the betterment of the fire service.

I ask you to reflect on President Truman’s tireless work in the area of fire prevention, primarily remembering the 3 Es. Let’s focus on Truman’s words from his 1947 opening speech: “I am immensely interested in the health and welfare of the people of this country. You will find that this all fits in a pattern which is covered in a health message which I sent to the Congress last year, and which fits in with these meetings to prevent accidents which we have been having.”

Politics and the fire service may make odd bedfellows for some; however, the fire service MUST continue to focus collective political pressure to further the cause of fire safety and prevention – and firefighter safety.

The single most significant movement to affect those areas, one that I believe we should be championing in political circles, is the use of residential sprinkler requirements. While individual success stories exist in sprinkler requirements, there are still far more unprotected properties than protected.

Residential sprinklers and smoke alarms are two of the greatest advances in the field of fire safety. Sprinklers also exponentially reduce the risk firefighters face every day.

I have heard firefighters bemoan the advent of sprinklers as “job killers.” Those people are not the representatives of the fire service we should be counting on to advance fire safety in their communities.

We must embrace the concepts of early detection and fast water as the best possible ways to protect our communities and the people in them. Together with the National Fire Sprinkler Association, we should tirelessly advocate for sprinkler legislation wherever the political will exists.

Remember Grandma Jones and your responsibility to serve

While politics will, in some capacity, always be engrained in the fire service, it’s important that we focus on political activities that advance our industry – not the politics that divide. Partisan politics must not make its way into the engine bay, the kitchen table or any other fire service delivery-point circle. Leave the partisanship at home and simply deliver the service.

It is critical for us to remember that while elected politics has had (and will have) a significant impact on our work, Grandma Jones could care less whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, Independent or of some other political ilk. Grandma Jones cares that you show up at the right place, at the right time, with the right people, trained the right way to take care of her issue – EVERY time.

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