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By John Morton, firstname.lastname@example.orgThere is “nothing” that “you cannot accomplish,” Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) told fire chiefs and other fire-services representatives who gathered in his office on Capitol Hill last Thursday for an informal discussion of some of the major policy and funding issues of particular concern to the nation’s first-responder communities. The occasion of the meeting was the 18th annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner – sponsored by the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) – later that same day. Weldon spoke not only as the founder (in 1987) of the Congressional Fire and Emergency Services Caucus but also as one of the nation’s best informed and most proactive legislators on matters related to domestic preparedness in general. With over 340 members from both the House and Senate, the Fire Caucus, as it is usually called, is now the largest caucus in Congress. It is both bipartisan and bicameral. The caucus chair, as Weldon noted, rotates on a regular basis from Republican to Democrat, and from Senate to House. The current chairman is Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.). Weldon told the fire services leaders that the fire and emergency services communities will find Washington “very responsive” to their issues. He pointed to the success of the Fire Grants and SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) programs as shining examples of how Congress can provide a helping hand to the first-responder communities. He also emphasized, though, that the Fire Caucus members want the fire chiefs and other fire-services leaders to tell them what to prioritize in these two programs. He also assured them that congressional appropriations for these and other homeland-security programs will continue to increase over the totals appropriated in recent years. A Cabinet Post for New FEMA Director? Weldon said he has no doubt that the Senate will confirm R. David Paulinson as the new head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Coincidentally, the official White House announcement of Paulinson’s nomination had just reached the Hill that same afternoon. Weldon said he was particularly pleased that a fire chief would finally be leading FEMA. Before entering federal service, Paulinson had been the fire chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. “Will a fire chief be the next DHS [Department of Homeland Security] secretary?” Weldon asked provocatively. He predicted that Paulinson will be much more sensitive to the needs of the fire service than his predecessor, Michael Brown, whose tenure came undone during the response and recovery phases of Hurricane Katrina. Weldon was forceful in his view that the FEMA director must have the authority to report directly to the President, and not through the DHS secretary. “Witt [James Lee Witt, FEMA director during the Clinton Administration] had it [direct access to the president],” Weldon pointed out. He then went a giant step forward with a bold proposal: “He [Paulinson] should have a seat in the cabinet – at a minimum, in time of crisis. We should have first responders – not lawyers – in senior positions.” A Common-Sense Matter of Justice
Weldon is one of an increasing number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who are critical of “bureaucrats” making fire-service policy decisions. “The federal government should not determine who is a firefighter,” said Weldon, referring to the role now played by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in arbitrarily determining firefighter eligibility for Public Safety Officer Benefits (PSOB).
Weldon has championed the case of one of his own constituents, Christopher Kangas, a 14-year-old junior firefighter who was killed en route to a fire emergency. The Department of Justice ruled that the Kangas family was not eligible for PSOB because he did not meet the statutory definition of a firefighter. To remedy this inequity, Weldon has introduced legislation that will prevent the DOJ from denying firefighter eligibility for PSOB status because of age or duty restrictions when a person has been designated as a member of the fire department in an official capacity. Weldon told the fire chiefs that he knows of at least four other cases where the PSOB issue has caused problems. He suggested that the Justice position primarily reflects the view of police departments – which do not rely on “volunteer police” and hence do not appreciate the service of volunteers in quite the same way, and to the same extent, that fire departments do, because the latter are much more familiar with the capabilities and added strength, particularly in emergencies, provided by volunteer and combined union/volunteer fire services. Weldon also discussed a number of other legislative matters, including a bill sponsored by his House colleague, Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who has introduced legislation that would provide job protection for volunteer firefighters who are called up for extended duty during an emergency. The issues addressed by the Castle bill are of particular concern to communities preparing for the upcoming hurricane season and anticipating the probability of more Category III storms – many of which are expected to require lengthy deployments during both the response and the recovery phases of future hurricane disasters.