WASHINGTON, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- On the one-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, members of national firefighting organizations made impassioned pleas to a Senate subcommittee Thursday for increased funding aimed at additional manpower and equipment in the wake of the attacks.
The Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space held the hearing to discuss what new technology firefighters need to properly deal with catastrophes of any kind, not just terrorist attacks.
"We now transmit our personal 911 call to you for your help and support in making our jobs and the protection of our citizens safer," testified James Turner, a Maryland volunteer firefighter speaking on behalf of the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Part of the problem is recreating what is now missing -- New York City's near-instantaneous loss of more than 340 firefighters at the World Trade Center exceeds the nation's combined fire service deaths for 1998, 1999 and 2000. New York City Fire Department Battalion Chief Robert Ingram said the city's loss was magnified, since the fallen included more than 90 senior members of special-operations teams and more than 100 trained drivers.
"Sadly, the discussion (of firefighter needs) has moved from the theoretical to the practical," Ingram testified. "We will have to rebuild the department and make adjustments in both the short and long term to replicate their expertise."
One of the NYFD's most pressing needs, Ingram said, is obtaining funding to purchase simulators to train a new cadre of fire engine drivers. Turner said tax relief for the nation's volunteer firefighters would be welcome, along with equipment such as infrared cameras for locating people in smoke-filled buildings.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the committee chairman, said fire service needs were great even before the attacks; only $100 million in firefighting-related grants was available last year, but departments nationwide put in $3 billion in requests. Kenneth Burris, chief operating officer at the U.S. Fire Administration -- which administers the grants as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- told the committee full-time staffers are needed to handle even existing application activity, let alone whatever traffic additional funds would generate.
Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a former firefighter, testified before the committee that funding available for firefighters pales in comparison to that of the nation's law enforcement ($11 billion) and military ($350 billion) personnel. "Their lives are no more important than the firefighters'," Weldon said. "The bulk of the ones that die are volunteers. These are heroes, and we've not done well by them."
Wyden is pushing for $600 million of recently appropriated emergency funds go towards the fire service, and Weldon is going one step further. Weldon promised to use his clout in a House-Senate conference committee to pass an amendment to the emergency bill that will provide the nation's fire departments $1 billion per year for three years. Weldon said additional long-term funding would be needed to help firefighters keep equipment certified for use.
The assembled witnesses agreed on several areas where that money would best be spent. Prime among those is hiring more firefighters. Regulations prevent a fireman from working alone inside a building, so many of the nation's 3-man fire companies can't work efficiently. Several witnesses said 75,000 people are needed to provide the most basic remedy to staffing levels nationwide.
Another key resource needing immediate attention is communications. Ed Plaugher, chief of the Arlington County, Va., Fire Department, said disparate radio technologies among D.C.-area firefighters hampered rescue efforts at the Pentagon Sept. 11. "We were forced to use equipment we had never operated or even seen before," Plaugher testified. "(Some) relied on the communications technology perfected by the ancient Greeks: runners carrying messages."
Plaugher and Weldon were among those calling for the Federal Communications Commission to provide additional frequencies for public safety use. Weldon said the commission shouldn't even consider auctioning radio spectrum for wireless phone service until the firefighters are taken care of.
John Buckman, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, outlined for the committee several other steps the association feels are essential, including:
-- having the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health set a standard for breathing apparatus that protects against chemical or biological agents;
-- expanding the nation's urban search and rescue capabilities through creation of regional USAR teams for handling local situations, and;
-- creating and funding a program to supplement efforts among hazardous materials transportation companies to produce and distribute computer software for quickly identifying the contents of hazmat shipments involved in accidents.