Hotshot Hill Rivalry: Firefighters Take On Police

Posted April 2, 2008 at 6:46pm

Firefighters and police officers, like Democrats and Republicans, have long been in a red-blue debate that pits guns versus hoses. Flexing their badges and touting their bona fides, each side insists it is the stronger service for public protection.

But on Capitol Hill, where strength is measured in advocacy groups and appropriations dollars, firefighters seem to be hosing the competition.

“Who doesn’t love firefighters?” asked Sean Carroll, government affairs director at the Congressional Fire Services Institute, which serves as the communication arm between the various fire groups and Capitol Hill.

Love for firefighters is blazing on Capitol Hill, where broad support among lawmakers has kept fire services grant programs well-funded and efficiently run as more attention — and money — is diverted to homeland security causes.

Police officers, meanwhile, have struggled in recent years to salvage funding for their Community Oriented Policing Services program, an initiative created in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton to put more police on the streets. Money to hire new police under the program, which does not have the support of the Bush administration, received $20 million last year, down from $1.3 billion in 1998. The hiring portion of the COPS program saw no funding at all from 2002 to 2008.

“In the [Bush] administration, firefighters have been hot,” former state trooper Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) said, grimacing at the pun. “Cops just aren’t hot right now.”

The 50-foot hoses seem to go a long way on Capitol Hill, where staunch firefighter supporters include House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) who serves as co-chairman of the 320-member Congressional Fire Services Caucus. The Law Enforcement Caucus, founded by Stupak, has 108 members.

The Michigan Democrat suggested esteem for the fire service soared after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which claimed the lives of 343 firefighters. Eighty-nine police officers also died that day, but, Stupak noted, the overwhelming support for firefighters could not be matched.

Police officers are “at a real disadvantage compared to firefighters” because they work under more layers, Stupak said, and bringing all the squads together on a legislative issue is about as easy as getting out of a speeding ticket.

Fire departments, meanwhile, have cooperative agreements and work together at the local level, and on Capitol Hill, they congregate under the Fire Services Institute to lobby members and promote themselves. The institute is sponsoring a two-day showcase this week to display the “the latest in the readiness and response capabilities” on the National Mall, Carroll said. Despite the fancy rhetoric, however, the showcase also features some showboating: the Firefighter Combat Challenge, an intense physical competition that will require nearly 100 participants to hoist, hammer and pull their way to the finish line.

“You don’t have that cohesiveness you have with the firefighters,” Stupak said. “We’re at a real disadvantage. There hasn’t been any unification among police in Congress. Firefighters speak with one voice.”

Dick Ashton with the International Association of Chiefs of Police said it all comes down to something much simpler: traffic tickets.

“Firefighters are always in a better position than we are. The better police do at their job by enforcing rules, the more negativity there is,” Ashton explained. “The only time you see a firefighter is when they come to rescue you. When you see a police officer, it’s for a traffic ticket.”

Ashton, who worked as a police officer for 32 years, said that translates from the precincts to politics, where Members support all law enforcement groups but seem to get more fired up by the firefighters.

The International Association of Fire Fighters, the main firefighters’ union, has collected nearly $2.5 million through its political action committee this year, according to Federal Election Commission data. The Fraternal Order of Police, in contrast, has raised $73,000. The difference is both substantive and symbolic — firefighters know how to mobilize their members.

Firefighters benefit from a well-tended grant program that channels money from the Homeland Security Department to the local level in “a seamless fashion,” Carroll said. Money for the firefighters’ retention program, created in 2003, climbed from $65 million in fiscal 2005 to $190 million in fiscal 2008.

“We’ve definitely had some sticker shock,” Tim Richardson, legislative liaison with the Fraternal Order of Police said.

Coincidentally, keeping crime rates low makes it more difficult for police to get funding, Richardson said. If crime is low, why pay for more police?

“[Firefighters] have a response mentality, but ours is a prevention mentality. We have nothing to show for crime prevention, it’s difficult to quantify,” he said. “The fire service has a lot better benchmarks, which helps them.”

Jabbing each other with talk of guns and hoses, the two groups recognize their shared mission of protecting the public and have worked together on several issues. Police and firefighters together lobbied Congress in 2003 to close a loophole in the survivors’ compensation program, which unintentionally excluded heart attack and stroke as eligible causes of death for families to receive a one-time benefit.

The good-natured ribbing between the two groups softens when they travel to conservative Capitol Hill, but like any rivalry, someone always has to get the last word in.

“We’re not playing politics with the issues, and we know that our name carries weight,” Richardson asserted, adding with just a touch of dare: “Besides, any time there’s a serious legislative debate, [firefighters] can bring all the hoses they want because we’ve got guns.”