March 16, 2009 By Corey McKenna
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano continued calling for improved intergovernmental partnerships in remarks to the International Association of Firefighters yesterday. She praised firefighters as true public servants and outlined sources of grant funding and stimulus money localities can use to keep firehouses open. She applauded the nomination of Craig Fugate as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrator, who is "very familiar with the nuts and bolts of emergency response and the vital partnership that needs to exist," she said.
One of Napolitano's top priorities is to expand partnerships between the federal Department of Homeland Security and state, local and tribal agencies. "One area where that can occur is in funding, training, and the grants process, because one thing we can share is the notion that resources are not unending or infinite," she said.
Napolitano acknowledged that first responders are in large part the face of homeland security to the residents of their communities and firefighters must be represented at the highest levels of departmental planning. One of her priorities is to name a new fire administrator within FEMA. "They will be directly involved in funding and policy decisions at FEMA," she said. "This is the seat at the table that is perhaps most key to your ability to carry out your responsibilities. We are going to make sure that it is filled with somebody that has the type of experience you need."
Napolitano said it was important that the public understood that FEMA is not a first responder -- a role that is filled by the firefighters and police officers and others on the ground day-in and day-out in communities around the country.
"I think it's important that we step back and really explain to the American people -- and you can help with this -- explain what FEMA's role is," she said. "Because in the wake of Katrina and Rita, the perception was developed that somehow FEMA was always the first responder, and that FEMA would be showing up, and people wearing FEMA on their jackets would be there."
"FEMA is there to back you up and not to be a substitute for emergency workers and fire fighters and the like," she said. "When a city or locality needs assistance, the state comes in and then FEMA is there to back it up. And that, to me, is a fundamental reassessment in the public eye of FEMA's role." That is something FEMA could use first responders help with.
"Things like training, disaster preparation, exercises, overtime ... oftentimes become the first thing to be cut, in a tight economic season," Napolitano noted.
Grants are one way FEMA and first responders can help each other, she said. FEMA provides a number of grants to firefighters for staffing and maintaining firehouses and firefighter training and exercises, and firefighters should let FEMA know where their priorities are.
Last year, FEMA awarded 4,700 Assistance to Firefighter Grants totaling over $436 million. Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants support firefighter staffing and capabilities. Last year, FEMA awarded 237 SAFER grants, totaling over $138 million. Napolitano pledged continued support for these grants and ensuring the funds are allocated where they are needed most.
She highlighted the IAFF Weapons of Mass Destruction Training Program grants that have provided first responders with training on how to effectively respond to HAZMAT and WMD incidents, calling them "very, very key."
"The weapons of mass destruction involving a hazardous chemical or biological weapon is very high up on the scenarios that we are seeing, and the scenarios that we need to be prepared for," she said. "And if something like that were to happen, then it is going to be you and your departments that are going to be called upon to respond. And woe be it to any of us that such an incident ever happens. But woe be it to us also if people are not in place to respond, who are trained, who have the right equipment and are ready to go from the first minute a call-out happens."
Napolitano highlighted $210 million of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds to be spent specifically for firefighter assistance grants to keep fire houses open. "You need to be working with your communities in your states, or whatever. Make sure they know about those funds," she said. "Make sure they have a plan for those funds. Make sure you are providing input into those plans. But make sure that we keep our fire houses open throughout the country," she said.