In 1987, a former firefighter named Curt Weldon was elected to the U.S. Congress. A member of the Marcus Hook Volunteer Fire Department, the former fire chief turned federal legislator represented a congressional district on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Shortly after entering Congress, Weldon was working late one night in his Capitol Hill office with his staff when he detected the faint smell of smoke coming from outside his office. Opening the door to the hallway, he saw heavy amounts of smoke coming from the office of Jim Wright, Speaker of the House. At the time the congressional office buildings lacked proper fire detection and sprinkler systems so there was no way of alerting people inside the building to evacuate. Fortunately because the fire occurred in the evening hours, most of the members and their staffs had already departed. Yet Weldon realised a high level of complacency existed on Capitol Hill regarding the threat of fire and decided to do something about it. Shortly thereafter, he formed the Congressional Fire Services Caucus.
Since its establishment in 1987, the Congressional Fire Services Caucus remains one of the largest and most respected caucuses in Congress. Comprised of Republicans and Democrats alike, this bi-partisan caucus was designed for members of Congress to work together to raise greater awareness about the role of the American fire and emergency services in protecting our homelands. Up until 2006, Weldon was the driving force behind the caucus, providing the energy and leadership to keep his fellow members engaged in fire service issues. But Weldon lost his bid for re-election and the responsibility fell on his former colleagues to fill the void to ensure that the fire caucus remained active. Fortunately, they did as the Caucus remains as active today as it did in the early years.
Caucuses are quite ubiquitous on Capitol Hill, but what makes the Fire Caucus unique is its working relationship with the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). Established in 1989, CFSI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy institute that works closely with Fire Caucus leaders to educate members of Congress about the challenges and needs of our nation’s fire and emergency services. It is a privately-funded organization that serves as a confluence, bringing together all the major fire organisations to develop consensus on the paramount issues for public safety.
CFSI has a Board of Directors and staff, but it also has a National Advisory Committee (NAC) that helps the organisation establish its agenda on Capitol Hill. Comprised of 36 national fire and emergency services organisations, the NAC convenes semi-annually to discuss issues of common concern to our nation’s career and volunteer firefighters, as well as fire chiefs, instructors, codes and standards organisations, fire marshals, manufacturers and service provides, and other elements of public safety. The adage “strength in numbers” is the mantra of the NAC – it is what enables the fire service to be a powerful force on Capitol Hill.
Beyond the semi-annual meetings, CFSI facilitates meetings and conference calls with NAC members throughout the year to strategize on legislative issues. It also organises meetings between NAC members and congressional offices to discuss how they can work together to advance legislation pending in Congress.
Unfortunately, the acrimony and gridlock being reported from Washington, DC is true. Little is getting accomplished because the politics have driven a chasm in Congress. However, the fire service has achieved quite a few victories despite the gridlock, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and the national fire organizations working together under the CFSI umbrella. Congress continues to fund the two major grant programs for the fire service: the Assistance to Firefighters (AFG) and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant programs. The fire service has also prevailed on a number of other issues – issues addressing public safety communications, public safety officer benefits, and funding for the United States Fire Administration/National Fire Academy.
In 2009, the Congressional Fire Services Institute conducted a fire service showcase on the National Mall. New technologies and equipment were on display. Education booths and demonstrations were set-up to educate the public on fire and life safety measures. Lending their support, members of Congress and administration officials participated in the program as well. Following the event, one of the political journals did a story. It talked about the fire service and how active it was on Capitol Hill. It quoted a number of fire officials, but the most compelling quote in the story came from the chairman of the Congressional Law Enforcement Caucus. Discussing the differences between fire and police in terms of legislative agendas, he said that the fire service was more successful because “the fire service speaks in one voice.”
CFSI is not the voice of the fire service; it is the organisation that enables the fire service to speak in one voice on the key issues that impact all firefighters and emergency services personnel. We are proud of our many accomplishments and always look forward to sharing our work and mission with firefighters – whether in the US or in other parts of the world.
Please visit our website for more information about our mission please visit www.cfsi.org I certainly appreciate this opportunity to submit an article in International Fire Fighter Magazine and hope to continue sharing information about our work in Washington, DC.