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  4. Secretary Mayorkas Delivers Remarks at 34th Annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner

Secretary Mayorkas Delivers Remarks at 34th Annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner

Release Date: May 3, 2024

Secretary Mayorkas delivered the following remarks in his keynote address at the 34th Annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner in Washington, DC. The below remarks are presented as prepared for delivery.

At some point or another, every child dreams of being you when they grow up.

To them, a firefighter is nothing so much as a real-life superhero. Your big, bright red trucks lead the local Fourth of July or Thanksgiving Day parade down Main Street. You look larger than life the first time you visit their elementary school, fully clad in your turnout gear. When you switch on your siren and hit your horn, the sound is louder than anything they have ever heard in their lives. All the cars on the road immediately pull over to let you pass, recognizing that, wherever they are going, it is not as important as wherever you are going.

Kids grow up; we stop believing in superheroes. But no one ever loses their respect for, and faith in, the firefighter.

Fire or flood, car accident or plane crash, lightning strike, sinkhole, chemical spill, gas leak, shooting, overdose, or bridge collapse – in any and every emergency situation, no matter how frightening and no matter how unforeseeable, communities everywhere trust that brave first responders will show up; that they will know what to do; and that, if necessary, they will put their lives on the line to do it.

That respect and faith are shared by all of us at the Department of Homeland Security. In this modern threat landscape, where any town, anywhere, can know tragedy or disaster at any moment, we know better than anyone that it is you who are the first to be called, and the last to leave, when the need arises.

It is an honor to be here tonight to thank you and your crews, on behalf of our Department and on behalf of our country, for shouldering that immense responsibility, and for doing so with courage, selflessness, and grace. I am grateful to the Congressional Fire Services Institute and President Jim Estepp for the invitation.

I also extend our deepest gratitude to your families and loved ones. No one serves alone. When a firefighter answers the call to action, so, too, do their loved ones.

DHS, and our U.S. Fire Administration and FEMA teams, know the debt we owe: to be there for all of you, as you have been there for all of us. We are working to make sure every first responder has the support and resources they need to do their critical job, especially as the nature of that job continuously and dramatically evolves.

We developed the National Fire Service Strategy, as Dr. Moore-Merrell noted, to respond directly to that challenge and the needs of firefighters nationwide – and we are delivering on that promise. To share just a few examples:

As wildfires become more frequent and more destructive in more places, the USFA’s National Fire Academy and the IAFF partnered to launch “Responding to the Interface,” a free toolkit to provide structure firefighters with wildfire conflagration training.

We worked with the FDNY, the Fire Safety Research Institute, and our federal partners to launch the Take CHARGE of Battery Safety public education campaign, to help reduce the explosive fire risk posed by lithium-ion batteries found in cell phones, laptops, cars, bikes, and scooters.

We used last October’s USFA Summit to bring together a new working group to better aid the growing number of firefighters who are diagnosed with, and need treatment for, job-related cancers. As we speak, they are developing a comprehensive firefighter cancer strategy that invests in research, provides access to cancer screening, and reduces and eliminates exposure to PFAS chemicals.

For safer response operations, our Office of Science and Technology has harnessed emerging technology to develop innovative new tools like C-THRU, a prototype artificial intelligence-driven, heads-up, real-time indoor visualization display that makes it possible for firefighters to find their way through dark, dense smoke.

All this, and much more.

Instrumental to each of these efforts has been the leadership of our extraordinary U.S. Fire Administrator, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell; her predecessors, including Ernie Mitchell, Keith Bryant, and Greg Cade, who are here tonight; and, for 50 years, the dedication and determination of the men and women of the U.S. Fire Administration.

The resources we have provided, however, and the progress we have made will be for naught if the recruitment and retention crisis facing the first responder community is not quelled.

For all the awe in which we hold local firefighters – for all the dreams children harbor of one day joining their ranks – right now, too few ultimately view this noble work as viable long-term.

The demands of the job are extraordinary, as you well know. The pay is low, or, for the 70 percent of our nation’s firefighters who serve in a volunteer capacity, nonexistent. The physical and mental health toll on first responders is steep, as it is on their loved ones.

We need you now more than ever: emergency call volume nationwide has tripled since 1980. Yet the number of first responders ready to answer such a call has fallen: today, there are over 200,000 fewer volunteer firefighters than there were in 1980, and career fire departments are seeing far fewer applicants than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

DHS has provided nearly $700 million over the past two years in SAFER grant funding directly to fire departments to hire, maintain, equip, and train their frontline personnel – and we need Congress to allocate more funds.

But no less meaningful and impactful to the work of recruitment and retention is the example that each of you set by serving every day. Firefighting and emergency service is a calling. Children do not dream of doing your job because the money is good.

So I close my remarks tonight with an ask of you and your crews.

In the days and months ahead: give voice to that calling. At gatherings like this, and in the halls of Congress; on college campuses; in Rotary Clubs; and at elementary school demonstration days: share your story of service.

Share the story of the time you found a child huddled in the corner of a burning room and pulled them to safety. The time you jumped into an icy river and smashed a window to rescue a family from their submerged car. The limb you saved with a timely tourniquet; the beloved pet you went back in for.

Tell the story of the toddler’s birthday party you drove the engine to, because they wanted to meet their heroes. Or the time you carried a grandmother down 30 flights of stairs when the elevator was out in her apartment building. Talk about the trench you dug that helped save a national park, or your first time cooking dinner for the station, or about the pride you felt when you jumped out of bed in the middle of the night or sprinted out of a baseball game because you got the call, and your crew, your neighbors, and your friends were counting on you.

When you share your stories, you call more people, of every background, to serve. You inspire your fellow first responders, your community, and your country. You show us what the best of America looks like, and you refill, I hope, your own sense of pride in your work.

I have been privileged throughout my time at the Department of Homeland Security to hear and see many of these stories. So long as I have this platform, you have my commitment to help you share them, as we work together to ensure the continued safety and security of our country.

Symposia such as this, and conveners like the CFSI, are essential. Thank you all very much for being here, and for your commitment to this important work. Thank you for the honor of speaking with you tonight. And thank you for all that you do, every day.


Last Updated: 05/07/2024
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