Alaska’s Sen. Murkowski asks ‘what more can we do’ to help the fire service

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski sat down with FireRescue1 to discuss the needs of fire leaders, and how to ensure resources are available for wildfire prevention and disaster relief


By Rachel Engel

At the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s 2019 National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner and Symposium this month, a new face will be making the rounds and discussing pressing issues with fire and EMS leaders from across the country.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was asked to co-chair the Congressional Fire Caucus, filling the seat previously held by Sen. John McCain before his death last year. 

“That was an honor,” Murkowski recently told FireRescue1. “[The Congressional Fire Institute] told me that I was respected throughout the fire service for my work, whether it was in the wildlands or with the chiefs and firefighters in the urban areas. It’s very humbling to be asked, and to take over from Sen. McCain was a very big honor.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was asked to co-chair the Congressional Fire Caucus, filling the seat previously held by Sen. John McCain before his death last year. (Photo/DoD)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was asked to co-chair the Congressional Fire Caucus, filling the seat previously held by Sen. John McCain before his death last year. (Photo/DoD)

The health of first responders is a top priority

Murkowski has worked as an ally for the fire service in the past, co-sponsoring legislation with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ,  to create the Firefighter Cancer Registry, a voluntary national database of firefighters diagnosed with life-threatening diseases, which was signed into law in 2018.

First responder health is one of Murkowski’s top priorities and is a topic she plans to discuss in detail with fire leaders at the upcoming symposium.  

“We need to understand the association between cancer rates and firefighting so that we can do more to help in that area,” she said. “What more can we do to make sure we are being responsive to their needs; they are certainly responsive to ours.”

Murkowski is also one of only two GOP senators backing a permanent 9/11 victim compensation fund, to prevent advocates from having to return year after year to fight on behalf of those “who suffered physical harm or were killed as a result of the terrorist-related aircraft crashes of Sept. 11, 2001,” according to the VCF website.

It’s only natural to support the health of first responders, Murkowski said, as “they’re the ones that run into the danger while everybody else backs away.”

Putting a check on out-of-control wildfires

As a member of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, Murkowski has a front row seat to the number of resources being spent on wildfire prevention, and what more could be done to help fire leaders on the ground.

“We are seeing more and more of our land being consumed by these devastating fires,” she said. “They are costly from a host of different perspectives and, more certainly, it takes the lives of those brave men and women that are out there to provide that protection for us.”

Murkowski sees the issue as a combination of budget management, resource appropriation and policy changes.

“When you see more devastating wildfires that are, again, congregating on this urban interface, threatening property, threatening families, we’ve got a responsibility to look critically at how we can better manage our land and how we are better prepared to respond,” she said. “We have increased levels of drought, and with that we have insect infestation that kills off many of our trees, which contribute to the tinder on the forest floor.”

It becomes a domino effect, she noted.  

“There are so many different factors that we are seeing come into play right now that are increasing the risk [of wildfires],” she said. “This is an extraordinarily big issue and it is becoming more of a significant issue as we’re seeing more wildfires around the nation.”

Investing resources in wildfire prevention

For Murkowski, particularly from her position on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, it is crucial to invest in tools and resources that not only assist in extinguishing wildfires but also prevent them from becoming catastrophic.

“It’s appropriately resourcing through the budget, making sure we have trained personnel,” she said. “ These are important investments: making sure that we’ve got as much safety as we can possibly offer, and that’s through good equipment, that’s through exceptional training.”

This also means protecting federal funding sources, such as the SAFER and AFG grants, and stressing their importance to other members of Congress.

“As a member of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, I’ve put fire grants and SAFER on my wish list every year, and so for 2019, we’re funding these programs,” Murkowski said. “I think that what we need to do is make sure that we continue to place a priority to ensure that there is a recognized need, not just by those of us on the appropriations committee, but those of our colleagues around the country.”

Above all, Murkowski wants to provide a receptive ear to the needs of first responders.

“We want to make sure that, whether it’s fire, rescue or EMS professionals, we’re there to help them,” she said.

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