Have you attended the National Fire Academy recently and had to deal with the possibility of a federal government shutdown? Having attended, and knowing others who have, it is unquestionable that this is becoming more of the norm in recent years. The National Fire Academy is the nation’s premiere educational resource for fire and arson investigators. A federal government shutdown affects more than just the federal employee. With a shutdown looming at the end of each fiscal year, this creates significant challenges to fire and arson investigators who are in pursuit of training needed in order to better serve their communities, and obtain a professional certification or promotion.
The federal government has placed a label on instructors at the National Fire Academy as “non-essential.” How can “non-essential” employees be tasked to provide training to personnel who are essential to the core need for the academy’s creation? The basis for creating the academy, which was under presidential directive, states the academy is essential to “personnel performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” These are conflicting guidelines and must be changed!
The creation of the National Fire Academy was initiated by President Nixon establishing the need for a group to study the nation’s fire problem. This group would become the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. The final report, which they presented to the president, was titled “America Burning” and is considered one of the most important and influential reports ever to be published in the fire service. The commission would ultimately recommend the establishment of a National Fire Academy. This was seen important because it would provide the specialized training in certain subjects that was not and could not be taught anywhere else in the country, while ultimately providing assistance to state and local jurisdictions in their training programs. It established the need for a National Fire Academy and stated the academy would “function as the core of the nation’s efforts in fire service education, feeding out model programs, curricula and information, and at the same time receiving helpful advice from those schools and the fire services.” In 1974, President Ford would sign into law the National Fire Prevention and Control Act, which granted the creation of the United States Fire Administration (USFA). The USFA would fall under the Department of Commerce until 1979, in which then, moving to fall under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), by the creation of President Carter. At the same time, Congress would change the funding for the USFA and National Fire Academy to fall under FEMA, which remains the same as of today.
You can see from my previous remarks the president viewed the need for a National Fire Academy at the time of its inception as extremely important. This has not changed over time, but it has in the eyes of policy makers and the legislature, who have lost sight of what programs need to be funded, even throughout a government shutdown.
Having attended the National Fire Academy during the last two weeks of September going into October of 2015, there was immediate confusion upon arrival. When arriving in Maryland, it was stated that courses could be canceled at any time or cut short due to the government shutting down, which would place the federal employees working at the academy in furlough. A shutdown during this time would have also created a huge issue with hundreds of families that were traveling in from all over the country during the first weekend in October. During this time there is an annual gathering for the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, which attracts many public figures and politicians, including president Obama.
As the days passed, we went to class not knowing if that would be the last day, or if the government would figure out how to deal with Planned Parenthood so that (30) arson investigators from all over the country could continue to receive the outstanding training they came for — training and education they needed and deserved in an effort to better serve their community and combat crimes of arson. A few days into the two-week program it was announced the academy would be ending all courses a day earlier than originally planned. This created many issues for a lot of us in the class. How do we change our flights? Will we have to pay for a hotel room for the night we are kicked off campus? What topics are we not going to discuss from our program? Are we going to still receive credit for the program and get our certificate? It also created scheduling issues for many, as they had planned to still be away for one more day and now had to figure out if they were to report to work or use vacation time. This also happened to a co-worker of mine who went to the National Fire Academy in February of 2015. He was informed a few days’ prior the federal government may be shutting down, which would place employees on furlough and the course at the academy would be canceled. They informed him that they would email at least (24) hours before the class start time to let everyone know the status of the closure. Can you see how ridiculous this is? You have people traveling to Maryland from Florida, Texas, California, Alaska and even Japan, but you want to give (24) hour notification? Luckily it wasn’t that big of an issue for him, as it’s only a couple of hours from Charlotte, North Carolina to Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Not only does a government shutdown create logistical problems for students, their families and employers, it creates professional problems as well. You have fire investigators who are required to be certified and recertify as Certified Fire Investigators. NFPA 1033: Standard for Professional Qualifications for Fire Investigator section 1.3.8 states “the investigator shall have and maintain at a minimum an up-to-date basic knowledge of the job performance requirements listed.” Another important topic taught at the National Fire Academy to fire investigators is the expert courtroom/testimony course. This course provides the framework to investigators on how to act and what to expect during deposition and trials, and unless you have experience as an expert witness, it is your only way to fulfill one of the obligations to sit for the Certified Fire Investigator exam through the International Association of Arson Investigators. A government shutdown has been the hot topic in the fall the last couple of years. According to a Congressional Research Service Report, the longest shutdown was 21 days and six shutdowns have lasted in between eight and 17 days. How are we supposed to obtain this training if the government is threatening to shut down every year, or more often than in the past?
As mentioned before, the biggest issue at hand is the Federal Governments employee classification system, which lists instructors at the National Fire Academy as “non-essential” employees. The academy, which falls under the United States Fire Administration, which falls under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which ultimately falls under the Department of Homeland Security has policy makers in Washington D.C. who establish their shutdown process and proposes their budget each year. With such a large “chain-of-command,” those sitting in Congress, who make these decisions could not possibly know or understand the importance of the National Fire Academy, and that by enacting a government shutdown you are canceling or shortening the training to hundreds of personnel within the fire service industry. These personnel count on this training as an educational resource to help better protect the communities they serve in.
What must change is the classification of employees at the academy as non-essential to essential. As fire investigators, we are relying on what the government states are non-essential employees to teach us, essential employees, advanced skills for conducting proper fire investigations to serve our communities. This very action contradicts the reason for creating the National Fire Academy, which was created under presidential directive to provide training to “personnel performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” I believe through knowledge exchange the voice of the fire service can be heard and changes can happen.