WASHINGTON – Within an hour of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad volunteers were on the scene.
Weeks later, they dispatched a unit for a week to help clean up anthrax spores at the Hart Senate Office Building.
But when the squad asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency last year for $100,000 to buy equipment, they were turned down.
“Luckily we serve a community that’s very affluent,” and can afford to support the squad, said Bethesda-Chevy Chase Assistant Chief Peter Morris.
But Morris and other firefighters who testified before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday said the nation’s career and volunteer fire departments are going to need more help from the federal government to meet the needs of a post- Sept. 11 world.
While volunteers asked for money for equipment, career firefighters urged the subcommittee to dedicate funds to hiring more firefighters.
“At the end of the day, the most important resource for fire departments is manpower,” Baltimore City firefighter Carlos Olaguer testified.
The hearing of the Veterans, Housing and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee was called by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., to examine the expanding roles of firefighters, their financial needs and ways the federal government can help them.
“We know that . . . volunteer fire departments can’t rely on fish fries, bingo and tip jars (alone),” Mikulski said. “If we are asking our firefighters to assume more responsibility for protecting us, then we have to show an even deeper commitment to them.”
The subcommittee funds FEMA, which has $450 million this year for the Firefighters Grant Program. Mikulski also noted that President Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal 2003 includes $3.5 billion for “first responders,” like local police, fire and health departments who would be on the front lines of a terrorist attack.
Mikulski’s staff said 200 Maryland fire companies requested $40 million of the $100 million in FEMA’s Firefighters Grant Program last year, but they could not say how many of the Maryland requests were granted. Most of the requests were for vehicles, firefighting equipment and protective gear, her staff said.
Morris said the grant program needs to give priority to departments serving large populations, federal facilities or likely terrorist targets.
He also asked the panel to make emergency medical service units eligible for the grants, saying the EMS’ contribution of patient triage, decontamination and incident management at mass casualty incidents is “an integral piece of the preparedness puzzle.”
But Olaguer urged the lawmakers to set aside at least half of the grant money to hire people.
Olaguer said that calls to the Baltimore Fire Department have increased 47 percent since 1990, but that its professional firefighter ranks are stretched so thin that two small, simultaneous fires “deplete” the department’s resources.
“Staffing is an absolute priority,” said George Burke, the assistant to the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
But Burke said money also needs to be earmarked for training, adding that equipment is no good if there aren’t people on hand who have been trained to use it.