Secretary Mayorkas delivered the following remarks at the 2023 U.S. Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control in Emmitsburg, MD.
Before I provide my prepared remarks, I just want to express what an honor it is to be here with all of you, and to thank you for the extraordinary service that you provide to our country.
To you and your families – I recognize the sacrifice that firefighters and the firefighter family make every single day.
I also want to recognize and thank Dr. Moore-Merrell for her outstanding service as our nation's United States Fire Administrator. So, thank you, Lori.
A few years ago, a group of activists posted on the internet what they thought to be an “expose” on government waste in one of our country’s cities. They pulled publicly available data, cited the amount of money that the city was spending on firefighter pay and pensions annually, and pointed to the relatively low number of structural fires that the local fire department responded to annually. Why, this group of activists rhetorically asked, are we spending all this money on a department that doesn’t seem to fight a whole lot of fires?
It did not take long before representatives of the fire department and city leaders pointed out that structural fires represented less than five percent of the calls the department actually responded to on a yearly basis.
I would like to think that those activists felt particularly grateful, and perhaps somewhat embarrassed, the next time they called for help after a car accident, or a flood, a lightning strike, a sinkhole, a chemical spill, a gas leak, a medical incident... and a fire crew showed up.
The emergencies to which a firefighter responds are as varied as life itself. The character of the firefighter who responds, however, is constant: courageous, devoted to duty, committed to community, willing to sacrifice.
Firefighters are the first to be called, and the last to leave, when everything hits the fan. That is why the Department of Homeland Security, through the U.S. Fire Administration, is working to make sure that every firefighter has the support and resources they need to do their job.
I am so proud to be here today, with U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, FEMA Administrator Criswell, the President’s Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Caitlin Durkovich, and with all of you.
In a few minutes, the four of us will hear testimonies from national fire leaders about the most urgent needs and concerns of the firefighter community – of all of you. I ask you to be open and honest with us, and I urge you to use the many forums and opportunities this summit presents to do the same.
We all know certain facts: wildfires are becoming more frequent and more destructive in more places; the number of firefighters who need treatment for fire-related cancers is growing; new technologies, like lithium-ion batteries, are introducing new risk factors; too many firefighters, and the families who serve with them, are struggling with the mental health impacts of the job; and, we need to do more to both recruit the next generation of firefighters and retain this generation of firefighters.
At this summit last year, we developed the National Fire Service Strategy to respond directly to these challenges and the needs of firefighters nationwide. We are making progress.
All firefighters need sufficient training and supplies to confront the climate-driven increase in wildfires, so the National Fire Academy and the IAFF are partnering to launch the “Responding to the Interface” initiative to provide wildfire conflagration training for structure firefighters.
The country needs to recruit and retain more firefighters from all backgrounds, so we are providing nearly $700 million in grant funding directly to fire departments to hire, maintain, equip, and train their frontline personnel.
The proliferation of lithium-ion batteries poses an increasing fire risk, so we are preparing a national public safety education campaign.
There is an increase in demand for fire and EMS equipment, so we convened a whole-of-government effort, including the White House and the Departments of Transportation and Commerce, to work directly with companies, including Ford, to make critical production and delivery reforms.
Firefighter PFAS exposure and cancer rates are unacceptably high, so we convened the first-ever Firefighter Cancer Stakeholder summit in May. One of the summit’s outcomes was our directive to our Office of Science and Technology to help develop and distribute new PFAS-free PPE.
This and much more.
I am mindful of the words Maui Fire Chief Brad Ventura shared in the aftermath of the fire that devastated his community earlier this summer. When asked about the impact that tragedy had on his crew, he said, “unless you were in there with us, you cannot fully appreciate it.”
We may not be able to fully appreciate what you go through – but open and frank conversations we have, and convenings like this summit, are critical to helping us appreciate what you need to get through it.
Thank you all very much for being here. Thank you for helping the Department of Homeland Security be the partner you deserve. And thank you for all that you do to keep our communities and our country safe.
It is now my pleasure – my privilege – to introduce someone who appreciates better than most that firefighters are the first and best line of defense against so many threats in so many communities – the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, my colleague, Deanne Criswell.