A Federal Partnership with our Local "First Responders"
Prior to the tragic events of September 11, our nation's firefighters very often came in first when Americans were asked to rank the most respected profession. They were always enthusiastically cheered as they rode by at holiday parades, and supported at the local bake sale. But on that fateful day, millions of Americans gained a new understanding of the bravery and dedication exhibited everyday by our "first responders."
I have known about the commitment of our firefighters for many years. One day in the winter of 1991, while serving as the Mayor of Paterson, I received a difficult phone call. An entire block in the City of Paterson was consumed by fire, a blaze that despite the weather conditions would last for a day and a half.
The first unit responded to the first alarm at 7:30 a.m. The firefighters advanced to the basement of one of the buildings in an effort to locate the source of the inferno.
The smoke was too dense, and the firefighters hung onto a rope for safety. After a while, they withdrew from the basement by command, for the heat and smoke were overwhelming and the fire was raging.
Sadly, John Nicosia, a dedicated firefighter and husband, became disoriented and lost his way. We didn't find his body until two days later. I will never forget the feeling I had after losing that brave fireman.
When I went to Congress, I decided it was time the federal government stop merely paying lip service to our firefighters at holiday parades without putting its money where its mouth is the rest of the year.
To that end, I introduced the "21st Century Fire and Public Safety Act," which later became known as the "Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement," Act, or "FIRE Bill." After many months of working arm in arm with firefighters from New Jersey and across America, we changed the perception of fire safety in Washington and passed this important bill. It was signed into law on October 30, 2000.
The legislation established the Firefighters Assistance Grant Program, a competitive program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It delivers grants directly to paid, part-paid, and volunteer fire departments for such uses as purchasing new and modernized equipment, administering needed fire prevention and education programs, wellness programs for firefighters, modifying outdated fire stations, and training for our firefighters. These dollars are sorely needed in our communities.
We are asking our "first responders" to do more and more to protect us. Whether it is handling hazardous materials, rescuing victims of a natural disaster, or responding to a terrorist threat, the very face of firefighting has changed.
Our firefighters should not have to do these vital jobs with equipment from an era long since past. They should not have to do without the latest training, and they should be able to say "yes" when asked by their city or town to implement fire prevention and education programs.
Despite being funded at just $100 million in our first year, the program received applications from over 19,000 fire departments nationwide requesting nearly $3 billion. In the end, over 1,850 departments --urban, suburban, and rural --were awarded grants.
I am pleased to report that the program has proven successful for municipalities throughout the Garden State. Thirty-six communities, from Asbury Park to Garfield to Irvington to Northfield to Clifton, were awarded grants in year one. But there is much more to do, as these grant awards were simply a downpayment on the partnership between Washington and our local first responders. We are working to increase the funding for the FIRE Grant program during this year's ongoing budget process.
It is important to recognize that this initiative is just only about helping firefighters. Local municipalities and their taxpayers benefit as well. By delivering funds directly to local departments, this grant program enhances fire safety while helping taxpayers pay the bill. The federal government does not ask municipalities to "go it alone" when it comes to funding law enforcement, nor should it. The same, however, must also be said for helping taxpayers pay for their local fire department
I have thought about young John Nicosia many times as this legislation advanced through Congress. In recent weeks, I have also thought of those brave firefighters who entered the World Trade Center on September 11, knowing full well that they were risking their lives to save others. When I introduced the FIRE bill, I said that firefighters should no longer be the forgotten part of the public safety equation. Thanks to the help of countless elected officials and firefighters from across our state, we are well on our way to reaching that goal.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, represents the 8th Congressional District.