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Public Papers - 1989

Remarks at the Congressional Fire Services Institute Dinner

1989-04-12

The President. Members of the fire service community and ladies and gentlemen and friends, what a wonderful evening this is. Let me say, it's a great privilege to be, as Yogi Berra might say, in such extinguished company -- [laughter] -- all fired up. [Laughter] I want to thank you, though, for that warmth of your reception here and for your kindness. And let me just first congratulate some who are responsible for this first, massively successful event. I'm referring, of course, to the International Associations of Fire Chiefs and Fire Fighters, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors, the National Fire Protection Association, the National Volunteer Fire Council, and the Volunteer Firemen's Insurance Services.

And I want to also salute the individual representatives of the fire service community and then the members of the Congressional Fire Service Caucus, now the third-largest, I believe, technically. But if I know Congressman Curt Weldon, you're going to be number one. Let me salute the members of Congress that are gathered here, and particularly singling out not only the firefighter's best friend, Congressman Curt Weldon -- he talked about a sleeping giant awakened; you try sleeping -- [laughter] -- with Curt Weldon on your case, giving you a hot foot -- but Congressman Doug Walgren here and Sherry Boehlert on this side here at the head table. I single them out for their special leadership and interest in the affairs that bind us all together tonight here.

And finally, I want to say that you've chosen a wonderful time of year to hold this first annual Congressional Fire Services Institute dinner. After all, just think of it. Spring is in the air. Washington is alive with visitors. Baseball's Orioles are still in the pennant race -- something we couldn't have said last year at this time -- [laughter] -- the season's a week old. [Laughter] Our dog has had her puppies. [Laughter] And my wife got a nice clean bill of health today out of Walter Reed Hospital.

So, we meet together in a special week, for this is Volunteer Week, a time which celebrates the selfless character of the American people. And looking toward tonight, I was struck by the fact that 85 percent of our nation's fire protection is indeed supplied by volunteers. And it occurred to me that both you and your paid colleagues -- professionals -- for both give time and of yourselves -- provide the definition of a successful life. For any definition of a successful life, it seems to me, must include serving others. A successful life means that we're partners, not islands unto ourselves, the sum not of our possessions but of how we treat our neighbors. For more than 200 years, firefighters have been this nation's neighbor in word and deed, the backbone of America. And you've met local emergencies through volunteer and paid fire and emergency service networks. And today, you meet them still -- three million members strong.

And you know, being here tonight reminds me of a story that I heard which happened back in Prohibition days. It seems that 25 of Boston's top bootleggers were rounded up in a surprise raid. And as they were being arraigned, the judge asked the usual question about occupation. And the first 24 men were engaged in the same profession: each claimed to be a firefighter. Well, naturally, the judge asked the last prisoner, ``And what are you?'' And ``Your Honor,'' he replied, ``I'm a bootlegger.'' And surprised, the judge laughed and asked, ``Well, how's business?'' The guy said, ``Well, it'd be a hell of a lot better if there weren't so many firefighters around.'' [Laughter]

What I'm getting at -- even back in Prohibition, your numbers turned the tide. [Laughter] And so, they can today, and must, too, in the future. We've come a long way since Benjamin Franklin founded one of the first volunteer fire companies in 1736. And now, let's go forward and help achieve your goal: a better, more secure, more firesafe America.

Let me just share a few thoughts with you, and then you can get on with the dinner. First, this administration believes the fire service network deserves a Federal Government which understands and values its place in the American community. Almost every municipality has some sort of emergency fire organization. At the 4th of July celebration or Memorial Day parade, the fire service is there. At senior citizens centers and service clubs, the fire service is there. And when fire raged at Yellowstone, the fire service was there. And so, too, when you become the first responder not only to fire but to accidents and floods and cave-ins and collapsed buildings, you deserve the Government's respect. And in my administration, you have it.

Second, this administration believes that you deserve the Government's support. Fifteen years ago, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration was created to ensure that your concerns would be heard by every level of government. I intend for those concerns to be heard. And tonight, I commend the U.S. Fire Administration for pursuing with vigor its rightful role as the fire services Federal advocate and for providing a national clearinghouse to deal with these fire service issues. We want the National Fire Academy to retain its prominence as a national training center. And like the previous administration, we want the original intent of the Federal Fire Act of 1974 to be maintained.

You know, every profession -- you know this and I know it -- every profession has its ups and downs. And perhaps former hockey coach Harry Neale put it best: ``Last season we couldn't win at home, and we were losing on the road.'' He said, ``My failure as a coach was that I couldn't think of anyplace else to play.'' [Laughter]

Well, the difference is that few professions display that special brand of skill and heroism that is found in the fire service. I'm thinking, for example, of how last May, Richard Shiah, an off-duty battalion chief, arrived at the scene of a burning pickup truck that was overturned in a ditch. And with no protective clothing on, risked his life -- suffered second-degree burns on his face and wrists -- to save a father and two sons. Chief Shiah shows, like every firefighter, that heroism American-style is not going out of style, and tonight let us pledge that it never will. And to achieve that goal, let us act specifically to help the fire services in protecting our citizens from loss of life and property.

Each year, more than 6,000 lives are lost in fires, and over billion lost in property damage. And to combat such tragedy, we must foster greater public awareness of fire problems by supporting the Federal fire safety program. But we must also act when tragedy does occur. And toward that end, last year, as part of the Omnibus Drug Act of 1988, we raised the death benefit for fallen firefighters from ,000 to 0,000.

We've done much, but we must do more. And as we do, we'll show how voluntarism can join hands with government to renew the promise of America. And that's why I have opened at the White House the Office of National Service. This office is leading my administration's community and national service efforts. And yesterday, I saluted the 18 recipients of the 1989 President's Volunteer Action Awards. And soon, I will announce our administration's Y-E-S, or YES Program, Youth Entering Service. And this program will encourage all young Americans to get involved in community service, to reignite the concept of one young person helping another.

And I have said I like what works. Well, voluntarism works. In a recent Gallup Poll, nearly 50 percent of the population was involved in community service. And today millions of people are lending a hand, tending a wound, helping the less fortunate, in a homeless shelter, in an inner-city school, or in our fire and emergency services.

And some of you may know, Teddy Roosevelt is among my favorite Presidents. Let me relate what his dad said to him on the eve of his 16th birthday: ``All that gives me most pleasure in the retrospect is connected with others. We are not placed here to live exclusively for ourselves.'' And my friends, you, as well as anyone, embody those words. By saving lives, you have defined a successful life. And for that, I thank you. And yet I challenge you, too. And so, let us build on our beginnings. Let us continue to strive for a firesafe America. And as we do, all Americans will say, as I do tonight: The horizons of America have no limit. The best for America still does lie ahead.

Thank you for this evening. Thank you for inviting me. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 7:08 p.m. in the Sheraton Washington Ballroom at the Sheraton Washington Hotel.

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