Fire service and homeland security leaders discussed issues ranging from wildfires in the wildland-urban interface and improving firefighter safety to fostering more diverse and inclusive fire departments at the U.S. Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control on Tuesday at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, Md.
“I can’t begin to tell you how very important this summit is,” U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell said, calling the event “historic” after a morning roundtable that included Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security John Tien, National Security Council Senior Director for Resilience and Response Caitlin Durkovich, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. “We’ve identified some very real issues and we have a lot of work yet to do.”
The summit marked the 75th anniversary of President Truman’s Conference on Fire Prevention and Control in 1947 that launched the “America Burning” report and established the U.S. Fire Administration. The livestreamed event also kicked off the 100th anniversary of Fire Prevention Week.
Summit discussions focused on preparing for the impacts of climate change on fire departments, investing in a national apprenticeship program to grow the ranks of the fire service, establishing a comprehensive strategy to address cancer in firefighters, providing behavioral health and suicide prevention initiatives for firefighters, enforcing codes and standards to ensure more housing is better protected from fire, and involving the fire service in developing federal policy to ensure parity with law enforcement.
Ron Siarnicki, executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and retired chief of the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department, said that the foundation “is very proud to work side-by-side with the U.S. Fire Administration on so many projects, but especially in providing this opportunity for the American fire service and more importantly the individuals who are working to keep our communities safe.”
“All of us owe it to those who have lost a firefighter to do all in our power to prevent another firefighter from dying and to prevent the public from suffering any loss from such occurrence,” Siarnicki said.
Siarnicki praised Moore-Merrell as “a longtime champion for firefighter health and safety.”
“Every day Dr. Moore-Merrell demonstrates her commitment to protecting the nation from fire, helping firefighters hear learn about the training tools available and the equipment they need to do their job effectively,” he said. “And she does all she can to ensure that every firefighter goes home at the end of their tour of duty.”
President Biden addressed the summit by video, noting to the gathered fire professionals that “when the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident, we’re calling on you more and more and more.”
“Extreme heat and prolonged drought have turned wildfire season into wildfire years,” he said. “And local firefighters are being called in more to respond to the fires in the wildland urban interface where we’re moving out into the forest areas to develop and it becomes local and federal.”
Biden said the administration “is doing everything we can to make sure you have the resources you need to do your job as safely and effectively and efficiently as possible” including increasing federal firefighting grants to fund more local firefighters, emergency response vehicles, and sets of turnout gear.
The International Association of Fire Fighters and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association recently warned firefighters about health risks, including increased risk of liver and kidney cancers, linked to PFAS chemicals in their protective gear.
“Cancer is a leading killer of firefighters. Toxic substances you’ve been exposed to as part of your job are almost certainly — certainly connected to those cancer diagnoses,” Biden said. “And we’re doing — we’re going to do something about it,” including recently creating a special claims unit at the Department of Labor “to ensure that they’re processing federal firefighters’ cancer claims quickly.”
“I’m absolutely determined to make sure you have the gear that protects you without making you or your family sick,” he added.
The president said the administration is “doing everything we can to ease the burden on our firefighters by preventing fires” while “also maximizing protections for people when fires do break out, through a national initiative to help states, local, and tribal and territorial governments adapt and adopt the most up-to-date building codes that reflect the threats from climate change.”
“We’re using the Department of Defense’s satellite imagery to detect wildfires in their early stages so firefighters have a better chance to suppress the fires early before they can impact on local communities,” he continued. “And we’re working to help educate the public on basic fire safety, like preparing fire escape plans, testing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms monthly and replacing those alarms every 10 years. This is the simple steps we can take to save lives.”
Biden thanked those in the fire service “on behalf of my own family and every American,” because “when the worst happens, when those alarms go off, when everything and everybody you love is in danger, there’s no better sight in the world than that firefighter who’s ready to go to work.”
Watch the summit here: