Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas delivered the following remarks at the International Association of Fire Chiefs annual conference, Fire Rescue International, in San Antonio, Texas. His remarks are below:
I want to thank Lori, Dr. Moore, Merrill, for the kind introduction. I also want to thank Dr. Stuebing and the IAFC for the invitation to join you today. I'm honored to do so.
In January of this year, in the Bronx borough of New York City, a raging fire engulfed an apartment building causing the loss of 17 lives, eight of whom were children.
In late February, firefighters and other first responders carried out heroic rescues during the severe flooding caused by rainfall along Australia's eastern coast. The flooding caused the loss of more than 20 lives and led to the evacuation of more than 60,000 others.
39 people lost their lives in Kentucky a few weeks ago as a result of severe flooding there, too. Too many more lost their homes, and all that they possessed.
Earlier this month, again in New York City, firefighters responded to an apartment blaze caused by the ignition of electric scooter’s lithium-ion battery. The fire killed a five-year-old child and left their father in critical condition.
The challenges we face are more intense, more complex, and more frequent than ever before. The impacts of climate change - severe flooding, heat, fires, and winds - are impacting the daily lives of people around the world. New technologies, like lithium-ion batteries, are introducing new risk factors.
The work of firefighters and other first responders is more difficult, dangerous, and stressful than ever before. Yet -all of you and your colleagues whom you represent today - serve your communities and your countries selflessly, bravely, and with honor. You protect us and you save us from harm. You do so a great personal sacrifice and sacrifice to your families. Thank you for everything you do to keep us safe and secure.
The sacrifices you make are recognized, but they must also be addressed. First, you must take care of yourselves and those under your charge. And we must do whatever we can to mitigate the risks to which you and those around you are exposed.
Those risks are only growing. You are routinely exposed to smoke and other toxic substances, the effects of which are only now beginning to be fully understood. Through the course of your duties, you experienced traumatic events that can have lasting impacts. Firefighters and other first responders are on scene at every disaster, every emergency, every active shooter, every instance of civil unrest here and around the world. You are all-hazard responders, always on the frontlines, in the line of fire, and sometimes under fire. The strains are made only more intense as recruitment and retention challenges are growing and additional pressures are placed on your existing workforces.
Lori, United States Fire Administrator, Dr. Moore Merrell, is a lifelong proponent of firefighter safety, and I cannot think of another individual more passionate about your wellness. She is committed to ensuring you have the resources you need to improve your safety, health, and fitness. We have a great champion in Lori, and I encourage you to review and share the wellness resources she has helped made available on FEMA’s government website.
In reviewing your conference agenda, I know that the issue of wellness is top of mind for you, too. I was especially struck by the number of wellness courses and variety of them available here. I applaud your focus on this critically important issue of taking care of oneself and of one another.
You must have, and you are entitled to and deserve, ample resources to equip you to do your difficult and noble work most effectively. We must ensure you have the best training, equipment, gear, and support possible.
One of our key roles in the Department of Homeland Security is to ensure our partners, all of you here today, have everything you need to continue to do your vital work and to stay safe. We're committed to keeping people out of harm's way and in turn, keeping you safe as well.
Through FEMA, we offer training and best practices for both responding to and mitigating the impacts of emergencies and natural disasters. I'm sure you're aware of the many training and education courses offered in person and online through the National Fire Academy.
We recognized there's a need - one that extends across the globe - for training and sharing best practices and we'll take steps to expand our resources to all of our international partners.
You might not be aware that the Department of Homeland Security has a large research and development component, our Science and Technology Directorate, that assists you to be more effective and perform your work more safely.
Since the inception of that directorate, we've completed more than 100 projects in support of first responders. And we have many, many more in development.
Many of our innovations have been commercialized and are available to you, including innovations that help keep you safe, like a Burn Saver Thermal Sensor that continuously monitors heat exposure, improved PPE like particulate blocking firefighting turnout gear that keeps airborne toxins from entering through vulnerable spots, and situational situational awareness tools, like the Team Awareness Kit or TAK that helps first responders track their team members.
Through FEMA, we have many grant programs also available that are designed to shift the focus away from reactive post disaster spending to proactive investment in our communities’ resilience. More than $3 billion in funding is available for the Fiscal Year 2022 Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities and Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Programs.
The Assistance to Firefighters Grant or AFG program and the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response or SAFER grant program can help you increase your staffing and purchase vital equipment. For example, fire departments in New Philadelphia, Ohio; Rockwell, Texas; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania have used SAFER grants to increase their staffing and decrease their response times getting help faster to those who need it most.
And I must pause here, and besides I mentioned to President Stuebing just a few minutes ago. I am very well aware of the fact that the resources we have to provide to you do not meet your demand. I have been studying the dollars that we distribute in our grant programs. And I see the number of applicants and the mismatch is something, it's a gap that we just need to close. When I speak of the fact that we need to resource you that this is what you need, and you deserve, and it is that which you are entitled, to given the nobility and criticality of your work, and I mean it. And that gap just must be closed.
I've been in this job for 18 months and it's always more money that gets the applause.
We have also but it's really really important. You know we just have to put our money where our mouth is. People who save lives should not struggle for the resources to save lives.
We also have several other grant programs that can help reduce vulnerabilities to a cyberattack, terrorism or targeted violence. The threats that we face, the threats to which we must respond, are only growing in number and complexity and frequency.
As you well know, information sharing is vital in a crisis. Through the Homeland Security Information Network or HSIN, we make it easy for you to access DHS resources from your trucks, fire hose houses, and cell phones with the hope that we can better prevent, protect against respond to and recover from disasters.
All of you present today are a community. We are a part of that community. We are brought together all of us by the most noble of purposes to keep others safe.
DHS shares this common purpose with you. And at DHS, the principle of partnership of engaging communities and the agencies and organizations that are a part of our communities is central to everything we do. We make the greatest difference in the communities we serve when we all work together.
You are an important partner for us. There is no more important partner that we have. We have a lot to offer in the way of training, best practices, and other resources to all of you, including to our international partners here today.
But please, please, you must let us know how to strengthen our partnership and how we can do better. We are committed to your wellbeing.
On behalf of the United States Department of Homeland Security, I very much look forward to our continued work together. Thank you for everything you do. Thank you very much.