Remarks to the United States Fire Administrator's Summit on Fire Prevention and Control
[The President addressed the summit, which was held at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, MD, via videoconference.]
Doctor, thank you very, very much. It's very gracious of you. I appreciate it. And the U.S. Fire Administration is doing a great job.
Look, I want to take this opportunity to thank you all, to—for an opportunity to speak at this summit. And it's wonderful to see so many good friends, you know, sitting out there looking. Eddie—Ed Kelly. And I think President Black is there. Kevin, I hope—I can't quite see what—I can't see you out—in the front there, I think. And I actually wish I could be there with you in person. And you know I mean it.
You know, and I've had to pay respects with you this past weekend on the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Thirty years ago—God, it seems like 30 years ago. Thirty years ago, I was the original cosponsor with Paul Sarbanes and others of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Act. And over the years, I've spoken to—at too many—too many funerals for fallen firefighters. From the national events like the memorial of the Arizona 19 Hotshots in 2013, to the individuals in my home State that unfortunately are too numerous to name.
And each one—each one of you is a hero to the community. You've touched people's lives. So I'd like to take a moment at the top here to honor the lives we've lost of those in the past 2 years, including from COVID: 135 on-duty firefighters in 2021, another 77 to date in 20—2022. And it's a—it's an acute reminder of the risk firefighters bear and, quite frankly, of their bravery. You're the only ones who run toward flames and not away from them when that fire bell rings.
And you—look, you know, many of you heard me say before: First, God made man. Then he made a few firefighters. God made man, then he made a few firefighters.
I grew up in Claymont, Delaware. And across—I went to a little school called Holy Rosary grade school across from the Claymont fire hall. And all my buddies, they came—either became a firefighter, a cop, or a priest. I wasn't qualified for any of them, so here I am.
But—[laughter]—you know, it's truly amazing that an estimated 1,041,200 local and municipal firefighters—65 percent of you are volunteers. And I'm proud to say in Delaware, in my home State, it's 98.3 percent of all firefighters are volunteer firefighters.
And by the way, I know you're all having trouble keeping—because of COVID and because of the schedules people have these days—getting—attracting enough volunteers to man all the stations. You're the heart of the community.
You know, people don't appreciate you until they need you. But then they do, and you're always there.
Firefighters have saved my life and the life of my family. I want to just tell you for a moment—I know a lot of you know from—if anyone's from Delaware there knows—you know, way back in 1972, before I got sworn in, my family—my wife was Christmas shopping with my three children and a tractor trailer—they got in an accident—broadsided, and killed my wife, killed my daughter. And my two boys, who were then almost 3 and almost 4, were on top of their dead sister and mother. And it took the Jaws of Life from my local fire department volunteers to get them out and get them to the hospital. And it saved their lives.
In addition to that, what happened was—I was doing "Meet the Press," and lightning struck a little pond behind my house, came up through the ground, into the air conditioning system. Ended up generating this thick, black smoke literally—literally that—of those proportions. And from the basement to the third floor, the attic, everything was ruined. And the kitchen floor—we almost lost a couple firefighters, they tell me, because the kitchen floor was—the—burning between beams in the house, in addition to almost collapsed into the basement.
And then I was—I got rushed to the hospital for a—it turned out to be almost a 9-hour operation with a cranial aneurism—in the middle of a snowstorm by my fire company. They got me down. They saved my life. And so I owe you. And so many other Americans owe you as well, so many families.
The only thing that saves lives of a firefighter are more firefighters. The only thing that saves lives of a firefighter are more firefighters. That's why, as a Senator and as a—when I was out of office and then back as President, we do everything we can to support and pay for firefighters—more firefighters.
You know, and you're there for most people who've just lost everything. And by the way—again, to ad-lib a second here—I—you know, you're also—what people don't realize, you're the same folks who are there holding the boot in the corner to raise money for the people who just lost their home. Not a joke. That's what you do. That's what you do.
You're the ones who line the Little League fields. You're the one—you're just—anyway, you're an incredible group of individuals.
You know, in Delaware, we used to say—back when I first started running as a kid, I'd say, "There's three parties in Delaware: Democrats, Republicans, and firefighters." Thank God I had the firefighters.
I just got off with the president of the Delaware volunteer fire company who said, "Joe, do you remember I was in your first campaign in 1972?" [Laughter]
Anyway, you're on the front lines for emergencies and disasters all across this great Nation, from the devastating wildfires in the West to the thousands of fires that local firefighters respond to every day, and response to Hurricane Ian in Southwest Florida.
And by the way, I point out that I've flown over just this last 18 months—flown over most of the major fires in the West. More timber, more housing has burned to the ground than all of the landmass in the State of New Jersey. That's how much has been lost.
And you know, I went down to Florida to seek—in response last week, firefighters helped rescue thousands of survivors and answered the call—not just for fires, just answered the call. And in some cases, their own homes and firehouses were damaged, destroyed, or washed away. Because that's who you are. When tragedy strikes, you suit up.
And when the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident, we're calling on you more and more and more. Extreme heat and prolonged drought have turned wildfire season into wildfire years. And local firefighters are being called in more to respond to the fires in the wildland-urban interface where we're moving out into the forest areas to develop and it becomes local and Federal.
So I want you to know that my administration is doing everything we can to make sure you have the resources you need to do your job as safely and effectively and efficiently as possible.
You know, we invested $350 billion in the American Rescue Plan to help States and local—States and cities keep first responders on the job, including firefighters on the job when—during COVID-19. And between the American Rescue Plan and my 2023 budget request, we've increased Federal firefighting grants by $320 million, which includes money to fund 1,200 more local firefighters in the field, hundreds more emergency response vehicles, and thousands—thousands of sets of turnout gear. A pioneer in research on issues from—including like cancer prevention.
You know, it's close to my heart. Cancer is a leading killer of firefighters. Toxic substances you've been exposed to as part of your job are almost certainly—certainly connected to those cancer diagnoses. And we're doing—we're going to do something about it. The Cancer Moonshot is bringing together every part of our Government to cut cancer death rates in half and to end cancer as we know it, including by addressing environmental and toxic exposures to prevent cancer.
We just passed national legislation—national legislation to deal with the burn pits in Afghanistan and Iraq, and—that so many of our soldiers—we finally got it passed so that we can care for their families if they've been—lost their lives or care for them, in fact, if they—if they're going through this. We created a special claims unit at the Department of Labor to ensure that they're processing Federal firefighters' cancer claims quickly.
And we're also taking [tackling]* PFAS—the so-called forever chemicals that for years have been in your gear, your equipment, and the suppression agents that you depend on to do your job. I'm determined—I'm absolutely determined—to make sure you have the gear that protects you without making you or your family sick.
And I'm urging Congress to send to my desk the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act—let me say it again: the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act—which are going to help Federal firefighters and their families assess critical worker compensation resources, including making sure that several forms of cancer are presumed to be caused—presumed to be caused—by the firefighter's job.
And I'm also proud that last November, I signed into law Protecting America's First Responders Act, which extends the benefits under the Public Safety Officers' Death Benefits Program to the families of firefighters killed in training and made it easier to qualify for permanent disability.
The final point—I'm sorry to go on so long, but I feel passionately about this. The final point I'd like to make today is that we're doing everything we can to ease the burden on our firefighters by preventing fires. This is the 100th—hard to believe—it's the 100th anniversary of Fire Prevention Week. And the landmark legislation I've signed into law includes historic investments to reduce the risk of fire.
The bipartisan infrastructure law includes significant forest management, increases community resilience and—to wildfires, and harnesses new technologies to keep communities safe. It's also repairing vital infrastructure and—firefighters and other first responders rely on to quickly get to the—to those in need.
By the way, we're talking about the—all the bridges that are in tough shape. I was out in Western Pennsylvania. There was a fire station, a bridge over a creek, and a school not far from there. They have to go—I think it was 7 miles, if that—they couldn't go across the bridge because it wasn't strong enough to maintain and—excuse me—handle the firetruck.
You know, the Inflation Reduction Act enables us to take unprecedented steps to confront climate crisis, which is going to protect forest health, reduce fire risk, and supercharge our clean energy future.
We're also maximizing protections for people when fires do break out, through a national initiative to help States, local, and Tribal and territorial governments adapt and adopt the most up-to-date building codes that reflect the threats from the climate—from climate change.
We're using the Department of Defense satellite imagery to detect wildfires in their early stages so firefighters have a better chance to suppress the fires early before they can impact on local communities. And we're working to help it—we're working to help educate the public on basic fire safety, like preparing fire escape plans, testing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms monthly and replacing those alarms every 10 years. This is the simple steps we can take to save lives.
Look, on behalf of my own family and every American, I just want to close by saying again: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Fires will always be a fact of human life. And when the worst happens, when those alarms go off, when everything and everybody you love is in danger, there's no better sight in the world than that firefighter who's ready to go to work.
So thank you for being who you are. Thank you for all the heroes you represent. You are on the alert and on call in communities all across this country right now as I speak.
So God bless you all, and may God protect our firefighters. Thank you for letting me have a chance to talk to you. I wish I—I literally do wish I were there with you. Thank you. Thank you, Lori.
NOTE: The President spoke at 2:56 p.m. from the South Court Auditorium of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building. In his remarks, he referred to Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, U.S. Fire Administrator, who introduced the President; Edward A. Kelly, general president, International Association of Fire Fighters; Donna Black, president, International Association of Fire Chiefs; and Kevin D. Quinn, first vice chair, National Volunteer Fire Council. He also referred to his son Hunter.
* White House correction.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks to the United States Fire Administrator's Summit on Fire Prevention and Control Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/358933