United, firefighters move political mountains

Jerry Brant

If you're like me, I'm sure you wonder if your voice or your vote means anything to your elected representatives in Washington. After all, we now have political action committees, full-time fundraisers, SuperPacs, and lobbyists who seem to have the complete attention of those in Congress.

Washington has been in a state of permanent gridlock for the past few years and very little seems to get accomplished. Then, about 10 days ago my faith in our democratic system had a reawakening.

In June, the U.S. Department of Defense halted the transfer of excess military vehicles and equipment to state foresters and local fire departments to fight wildland fires. The Federal Excess Personal Property and Firefighter Property Program were suspended because the used vehicles do not meet federal emissions standards.

This sounded like the same old nonsense to come out of our nation's capital.

About-face
On July 9, DoD Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which transfers the excess vehicles to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service for distribution to the state and local level, issued the following statement:

"Following discussions with the EPA, the DLA will immediately resume issuing military vehicles and equipment with an association national security exemption (NSE) to authorized enforcement agencies and to DoD Fire Fighter Program recipients. EPA has confirmed that equipment transferred to law enforcement and fire-fighting agencies through these programs will continue to be covered by any NSE previously issued by EPA, with the understanding that DLA retains title to the vehicles and appropriate inventory and other management controls remain in effect."

Why the reversal? Because you got on the phone, you sent emails, and you wrote to your elected officials. For several hours partisan politics were put aside and Republicans and Democrats worked together to restore the FEPP and FFP programs.

Granted, there are still some details to work out. But elected officials went to work for a program that directly benefits their constitutes and not the lobbyist, PACs and political donors.

Across the aisle
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a bipartisan group of 23 additional senators sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling on the DoD to reverse its freeze on the transfer of surplus military equipment to fire departments, law enforcement and other first responders.

Some states had their entire Congressional delegation sign on to a letter to Secretary Hagel. Give yourself a pat on the back if you were one of those who contacted your elected official and asked him or her to act on this critical situation.

What did we learn from this exercise? Firefighters, working together for an issue, have a very clear, loud voice in this nation's capital.

Then why are we so hesitant to use it? Estimates place the number of career, combination and volunteer firefighters in the United States to be at 1.2 million. Plus we all have family and friends who value our opinion.

So what is our real political impact? It is probably closer to 10 million. Conversely, The National Organization of Women states that it has 500,000 members the ACLU 400,000 members. Other issue-related national organizations have similar numbers.

Then why have programs like AFG and SAFER been cut by almost 50 percent in the past seven years? The difference between those organizations and firefighters is the fact that they have become very proficient at letting candidates and elected officials know exactly where their organization stands on certain issues and they don't deviate from that position.

Firefighters, on the other hand, have rarely raised their voices in unison and stood their ground over an issue. This should serve as a wake-up call to all of us that firefighters' needs and opinions are important to our elected officials.

We just have to let them know what they are.

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