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Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C., on March 16, 2009

Release Date: 
March 17, 2009

Washington, D.C.

Secretary Napolitano: Thank you.

Well, thank you. Good afternoon, and thank you, [IAFF President] Harold [Schaitberger], not only for the introduction, but for sitting with me during my confirmation hearing. Everybody should have to be confirmed once. It's a very extensive process and it really is a sign of friendship when someone will come and sit with you at a hearing.

I also want to begin thanking my friends from Arizona. I think Tim Hill, I hope, is here, as president of the Arizona Firefighters. Pete Gorraiz; is Pete here? Bill Whitaker. There's Pete in the back, president of the Phoenix Firefighters; Billy Whitaker, the political director in my time as the Attorney General and then as the two-term governor of Arizona.

The firefighters really stood with us on so many issues, were really leaders in the state and in the community on everything from drowning prevention to emergency response, and shared with me some of their ideas on Homeland Security and really what needs to be done there. So I am grateful to the national, but really our Arizona friends have been friends and will remain friends.

But now I stand before you in a different role as the third Secretary of Homeland Security in our country's history.

Secretary Napolitano: You know, this Department is actually very young. It just celebrated its sixth anniversary. It is by far the youngest department of the federal government, even though now it is the largest department of the federal government, comprising 210,000 employees across our country with a very, very broad mission to prevent our country from being attacked—either through terrorists or other man-caused disaster—but also to prepare our country and to be able to respond to whatever kind of disaster, man-caused or natural, with strength, efficiency, resilience, and to recover in the best way possible, to restore people and communities back to where they were before a catastrophe occurred. So we are there to protect and prevent.

We are also there to prepare and respond. And it is all of those missions coming together that comprise Homeland Security. And if there is one group that must be at the table, as Harold said, in conducting those missions and carrying them out, it has to be the firefighters and emergency workers of this country.

Secretary Napolitano: You know, actually, in some ways you are the face of Homeland Security, because when you ask people around the country who do they expect to show up if something has happened; there's been an earthquake, there's been a fire; there's been a hurricane or a tornado; they talk about first responders. And when they talk about first responders, they talk about firefighters and emergency personnel such as yourselves.

They know that you are there when they need to call for help immediately. They know you are there in times of community crisis and personal crisis, and they know you are there out of a spirit. And this is why I think the firefighters around the country have always commanded such respect, because it is the job that is perhaps the purest embodiment of public service that there is today. And as you go about your daily work it is the sense of serving others, besides yourself, and communities larger than ourselves as individuals that really leave such a mark, and it is why firefighters are held and properly so in such high regard.

Now, I have just completed my sixth and a half week of Secretary of Homeland Security, but I have been there long enough, and based on my prior experience, to give you some general thoughts about what we are doing and where we are going. And I thought I'd share a few of those with you today.

First, one of my top priorities is to expand partnerships from the federal department of Homeland Security to our state, local, and tribal partners. In other words, the job of Homeland Security cannot be done, nor should it be expected to be done, by one, federal, department alone. We are one part of a vital and vibrant partnership that should ex tend across this country to every state, North, South, East, West, and to every community big and small. And those partnerships, I believe, can be made even more robust.

And, so, one of the things we will be working on is how to make that a meaningful statement. How do you make a statement that firefighters are on the front lines and our partnership needs to be more robust? And how do we give it real meaning? I think you all will share some of your ideas with me on that, but, of course, one area where that can occur is in funding, training, and the grants process, because one thing we can share is the notion that resources are not unending or infinite. So how we make sure that we go to their highest and best use is something we all have an interest in. More on that in a minute.

Secondly, one of the major components of the Department of Homeland Security is FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency].

[Off record comments.]

Secretary Napolitano: I heard that.

FEMA has a lot of great men and women in it, and there have been major improvements in FEMA, I believe, since the catastrophe of Katrina-Rita. But we are not yet finished with where we need to go with FEMA. And first I think we have to recognize that FEMA needs to be led by an emergency response professional, and that's why I am so pleased.

Secretary Napolitano: That's why I am so pleased that the President has nominated Craig Fugate to head FEMA. Those of you from Florida know Craig. He has been the head of Emergency Management there and involved in emergency response there for 22 years. He is very familiar with the nuts and bolts of emergency response and the vital partnership that needs to exist. He has key experience in areas like hurricane management where FEMA is called upon every year to be present and to be there. And so we start off with saying FEMA has to be headed by a professional. Craig Fugate is the nominee. I look forward to his confirmation by the Senate.

Second, we need to make sure that we take into account the issue of fire and firefighters in FEMA planning at its highest levels. We will shortly be naming a new fire administrator at FEMA to head the U.S. fire administration. They will be directly involved in funding and policy decisions at FEMA. This is a priority for me. I know it is a priority for you. This is the seat at the table that is perhaps most key to your ability to carry out your responsibilities.

We are going to make sure that it is filled with somebody that has the type of experience you need for this very important post.

Secretary Napolitano: Third, I think it's important that we step back and really explain to the American people—and you can help with this—explain what FEMA's role is. Because in the wake of Katrina and Rita, the perception was developed that somehow FEMA was always the first responder, and that FEMA would be showing up, and people wearing FEMA on their jackets would be there.

And as you know, FEMA is not a first responder. You are the first responders. And FEMA is there to back you up and not to be a substitute for emergency workers and fire fighters and the like.

FEMA's job is to support you, and to support you in a number of ways, by providing grants, training, equipment, exercises, by helping coordinate disaster planning across the country, including pre-disaster planning; and to assist in to assist in post-disaster recovery.

But it is really our firefighters, our police, those are the individuals that show up at the door on the day, the hour of a disaster, the day after, and the like. And when a city or locality needs assistance, the state comes in and then FEMA is there to back it up.

And so one of the things that we can all do is really educate and keep emphasizing that message. You are our first responders. We are here to back you up, to support you, and to provide an important level of making sure there is national pre-disaster planning and post-disaster recovery planning going on.

And that, to me, is a fundamental reassessment in the public eye of FEMA's role.

And last but not least, on the grants. FEMA's support to firefighters includes the Assistance to Firefighters Grants. These grants are designed to protect citizens and firefighters against fire, fire-related incidents. FEMA awarded over 4,700 grants under this program last year, totaling over $436 million.

We need to make sure that those grants continue, that funding is sustained, and that we are giving appropriate priority there. That's why we want to make sure that throughout the Department of Homeland Security from the Office of Fire Administration to FEMA leadership, to the Office of the Secretary, we're paying very specific attention to the these grants and these grant programs, because they directly help.

The SAFER Grants—

Secretary Napolitano: SAFER Grants—S-A-F-E-R—Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. That's the acronym. These grants support firefighters staffing and capabilities. FEMA has awarded 237 SAFER Grants, totaling over $138 million last year.

We will continue to work with you, to work with the IAFF to ensure that these grants, these SAFER Grants also go to where they are needed most, and achieve their purpose.

And we are also proud to fund IAFF WMD [weapons of mass destruction] Training Program. This program—

Secretary Napolitano: This program has provided literally tens of thousands of first responders the ability to respond effectively and safely to HAZMAT [hazardous materials] and WMD incidents across our country. And these grants are very, very key.

And why is that? It is that because this is an area where if you think about both from the man-caused and non-man-caused incidents, but particularly on the man-caused, the weapon of mass destruction involving a hazardous chemical or biological weapon is very high up on the scenarios that we are seeing, and the scenarios that we need to be prepared for.

And if something like that were to happen, then it is going to be you and your departments that are going to be called upon to respond. And woe be it to any of us that such an incident ever happens, but woe be it to us also if people are not in place to respond, who are trained, who have the right equipment and are ready to go from the first minute a call-out happens.

Secretary Napolitano: The grants that I just talked about are one way that we can help each other, and give meaning to that vibrant partnership that we need to have.

It's also important because I know that cities and states across this country are having terrible budget times.

By the way, is anybody here from a state that's not having a budget problem, would you please raise your hand?

(Show of hand.)

Secretary Napolitano: Where are you from?

Speaker: North Dakota.

Secretary Napolitano: Okay. North Dakota. Is that what you said, North Dakota?

Speaker:Yes.

Secretary Napolitano: Okay. No grants for North Dakota.

Secretary Napolitano: No, just kidding. Anyway, once we're through North Dakota and get to the other 49 states—

Nonetheless, look, it is a very tough economic time, budgets are being cut. Things like training, disaster preparation, exercises, overtime—things like that oftentimes become the first thing to be cut, in a tight economic season.

I know that, you know that. That's why we want to make sure that the grants that we provide not only are fighting for the funding, and we're fighting for appropriate increases, but also that we're making sure that those funds are going where they are needed most. And your help with that is most appreciated.

I will fight for them; I hope you will fight as well.

Secretary Napolitano: One area you'll see immediately is in the stimulus package that the Congress just passed a couple of weeks ago. In that package is $210 million specifically devoted to firefighter assistant grants to keep fire houses open. In other words, not to let the fire fighter infrastructure that we have be constricted in such a fashion that some communities are having to contemplate.

So you need to be working with your communities in your states, or whatever. Make sure they know about those funds, make sure they have a plan for those funds. Make sure you are providing input into those plans. But make sure that we keep our fire houses open throughout the country. We need them.

Secretary Napolitano: Even in North Dakota.

Secretary Napolitano: Just kidding.

So that gives you four sources of grant funds that we've talked about this afternoon. The Assistance to Firefighters Grants, the SAFER Grants, the stimulus monies, and the training for weapon of mass destruction.

There may be other areas where we can work together, and one of the things I'm interested in doing is exploring those and really thinking deeply about what kinds of areas it makes the most sense to increase the level of partnership that we have. And just as I said, FEMA is there to back up you as first responders, the Department of Homeland Security as a whole is there to back you up, and to make sure that the nation as a whole, across the entire continent, has had adequate emergency response training, has equipment, personnel, and that we are always ready to go when called upon.

You've got the profession—the professional skills. You've got the boots on the ground, as it were. We are there to back you up in this very, very important work.

You know, I know that President Obama is great fan of you, the firefighters, and I know that President Obama recognizes how homeland security doesn't begin in a federal department in Washington, D.C.; it begins in departments in Sacramento and departments in Missoula, in departments in Phoenix, in departments in Tallahassee, and departments in Fargo.

It begins on the ground everywhere, everywhere. He knows that, I know that. I look forward to our continuing partnership over the coming years, and I look forward to being able to return next year, to give a report, not only on what I've talked about today, but what we're going to do tomorrow.

Thank you all very much.

Mr. Schaitberger: Before you go, you may already have some of this.

Knowing your history with our leadership in Arizona, you might have one of these. Although they're a little cheap sometimes. But I want you to have this on behalf of 300,000 men and women of the IAFF, the 1,000 leaders of our great union that are assembled here today. I know it's going to find an appropriate place in your office.

Secretary Napolitano: It will.

Mr. Schaitberger: I'm going to be looking for it when I'm there.

Secretary Napolitano: You will find it.

Mr. Schaitberger: So that when you're making all these decisions, when you're making those approvals for all those grants—except in North Dakota—

Mr. Schaitberger: That you'll look at this helmet and that you'll think about the good work that you're doing on our behalf. We'll continue to be standing with you.

Secretary Napolitano: Thank you. Thanks, Harold. I appreciate that. Thank you.

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