Rick Jankowiak, Sharon Carlson and Randy Ichiyama are among the more than 20,000 union members who have been called up as military reservists to serve their country in the Iraq war.
But they are somewhat unique among the U.S. troops. They are three of the dozens of professional fire fighters from Washington state who have traded one noble uniform for another. And doing so, they move from the front lines of one war to another.
Before being called to active duty, Jankowiak, Carlson and Ichiyama (of the Lakewood, Tacoma and Seattle fire departments, respectively) were part of the network of “first-responders,” the fire fighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, nurses and other public health workers who are our domestic defenders in the war on terrorism.
The critically important role first-responders play in protecting our communities has never been more evident. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, fire fighters and police officers were showered with accolades and acknowledgement for their everyday heroism.
But very quickly they were asked to do even more in preparation for future terrorist attacks on American soil. And they’re being asked to do more with less.
The depressed national economy has severely squeezed the state and municipal budgets that finance fire protection, resulting in what Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, calls “the worst economic crisis for the fire service since the Great Depression.”
Meanwhile, fire department staffing shortages have been exacerbated by the war in Iraq. The IAFF estimates 26,000 of its members are in the military reserves. Many have been called up and many more are likely to get the call soon.
Given the remarkable number of domestic first-responders now serving in Iraq and the heightened state of alert for terrorism related to the war, you would think there would be a sense of urgency among government leaders to ensure adequate homeland security staffing here at home.
You’d be wrong.
The first-responders’ homeland security efforts have become the Mother of All Unfunded Mandates because Congress and the Bush Administration have refused to provide a dime of the money they promised to help pay for it. In fact, President Bush’s proposed 2004 budget actually cuts existing federal grant programs for fire department training and safety.
“Nearly every fire department in our state lacks the specialized training, the appropriate equipment and, in many cases, the proper level of firefighter staffing needed to effectively respond to the aftermath of a terrorist attack involving chemical, biological, radioactive or nuclear agents,” said Kelly Fox, President of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters.
Our own U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has led the fight in the other Washington to adequately fund Homeland Security efforts to staff, train and equip our first-responders.
“We know our first-responders – our fire fighters, EMTs and police – will be on the frontlines if, heaven-forbid, there is another (terrorist) attack,” Murray said. “The bottom line is we must fund the security needs in our communities – from our fire departments and police departments to state public health labs.”
She introduced amendments in the Senate Budget Committee and on the Senate floor adding first-responder funding, but both were defeated on party-line votes. At press time, she and other Democrats were attempting to amend President Bush’s emergency bill funding the Iraq war to increase the amount appropriated for first-responders.
Given a wartime budget that unconscionably grants hundreds of billions in additional tax relief to the wealthiest among us, it would be scandalous for Congress to deny cash-strapped state and local governments the money needed to protect our communities from the increased threat of terrorism.
Rick Bender is President of the
Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO,
Copyright © 2003 Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO