The year 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of “America Burning,” the seminal report authored by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control that placed a federal focus on our nation’s fire problems.
What impresses me most about the document is the two-year undertaking by commission members to study the problems and develop meaningful recommendations based on scientific data to address our nation’s fire problems.
Among the many recommendations was the establishment of a United States Fire Administration and National Fire Academy. Based on the strength of these two recommendations, the Carter Administration created both entities. First domiciled in the Department of Commerce, the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Administration and National Academy for Fire Prevention and Control — the original agency names — were eventually transferred to the Federal Emergency Management Agency when this agency was created in 1979.
While America Burning should be looked at from a historical perspective, there is one recommendation in the report that continues to capture my attention: proposed funding for the new agency. Commission members recommended a starting annual budget of $124,800,000. That was 50 years ago. In today’s dollars, that figure would amount to approximately $770,000,000. Here we are 50 years later and USFA’s budget is approximately $50 million.
Believe me, the national fire service organizations have advocated for increased funding for our lead federal agency. We have delivered our message to members of Congress throughout the years and to previous administrations.
Part of the reason why USFA/NFA’s budget remains inadequate compared to other agencies with similar-sized constituents can be attributed to being domiciled in FEMA. Initially, the idea of placing USFA under FEMA made some sense. FEMA being the parent agency was established to bring a federally-unified approach to responding to natural disasters. But as someone mentioned to me during a recent conversation on this issue, the marriage doesn’t make sense. While the focus of FEMA is on disaster response, the same cannot be said of USFA/NFA. Their focus is on prevention, training and data collection.
Would it have been to keep USFA in the Commerce Department? That is a good question and I certainly do not have the answer. It was originally placed there because of the economic loss of fire in the country and the fact that USFA’s mission was not focused on response — like FEMA’s — and more on education, training, and research.
But here we are 50 years later and the reality is that USFA remains a subsidiary of FEMA, lacking the funding, stature and recognition it deserves to be our voice at the federal level; the voice inside the White House when the President is briefed on large-scale disasters involving response from our nation’s firefighters and emergency services personnel; the voice at disaster scenes — including wildfires, major hazmat incident, and large scale natural disasters; delivering messages to the media about the deployment of firefighters and their roles in response and recovery operations.
Let’s hope that our next U.S. Fire Administrator is given a seat at the table during federal policy discussions with FEMA and DHS. Do you suppose Army generals speak on behalf of the Navy in meetings at the Pentagon? Of course not. Nor should we expect anyone but our fire administrator to speak on behalf of our firefighters and emergency services personnel.
And whenever we are presented with opportunities to speak to our members of Congress, remind them about our federal agency and challenge them to provide it more support. Upon your return from the National Fire Academy, send your members of Congress a letter discussing your positive experience and the knowledge you acquired from your classroom training.
We need to remain persistent, speaking up about our needs when the opportunities present themselves at the federal level. And sometimes we must present those opportunities ourselves.