Joe Biden

Remarks by the Vice President to the International Association of Firefighters 2009 Legislative Conference

March 16, 2009

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.) Folks, thank you very, very much. Man, it's good to be with you. (Applause.) It's good to be with you. (Applause.) Please, thank you very, very much. (Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.) It's good to be home with all of you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. I appreciate that warm welcome. And understand that the feeling is mutual.

Let me begin by thanking Harold. Harold was always an ally and a good acquaintance. But during the campaign, and since the campaign, we've become close personal friends. I want to tell you that I know of no labor leader, I know of no business leader, I know of no leader who bleeds more for the losses of his men and women, and who cares more about their physical and financial security than Harold Schaitberger. And, Harold, they're lucky to have you, and you're lucky to have them. It's a good marriage. (Applause.)

Now, about that bell. (Laughter.) I got two things about the same time: I got a bell, and a German Shepherd puppy. (Laughter.) And I got 13 acres that is fenced in, in the middle of 75 acres. I always voted for public housing -- I never knew it was going to be this good. (Laughter.) And guess what -- (applause) -- German Shepherd puppies respond to bells. (Laughter.)

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we should start by -- I want to personally -- give a personal thank you. As they say, as the President says, a shout out to Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia for keeping those fire stations open. (Applause.) We did it. We did it. (Applause.) Five engine companies and two truck companies, and more importantly, all those jobs saved. It was one of the first pieces of the economic Recovery Act we were actually able to put to work, and put to work the way we want to see that money put to work. We want to see it -- put the money into saving jobs, but also, particularly saving jobs that are absolutely essential to the community, the safety and well-being of the community.

So I -- and I was in Philadelphia this morning. I'm there a lot. This morning my mom was operated on. She's 92 years old, and God love her, she came through. She broke her hip, and she came through the operation incredibly well. I told her that -- (applause) -- those of you who've met my mom, you know she's fairly politically astute -- (laughter) -- and she still runs the show. And so I said, "don't worry, Mom -- last night I went up to see her, and with, obviously, my brothers and my sister and my wife and my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and my daughter and my -- everybody is up, because Mom-Mom runs the show. You think I'm joking -- I'm not. (Laughter.)

And I said, "Mom, don't worry, I'll be here when they take you up. And you were here for me, joking for every operation." My brother leaned down to her. He said, "Mom, you know how you always say, 'I'd rather be there than you?' He said, "Mom, I'm glad it's you instead of me." (Laughter.) And he has got this sense of humor, and he made her laugh.

But, I said, "I cleared my schedule tomorrow." She said, "Valerie said you were talking to the fire fighters." I said, "Yes, Mom, but I'll get a chance to talk to them again." She said, "Joey, talk to the fire fighters." Then she turned to my sister, "And, Valerie, you're still doing that St. Patrick's Day speech in Scranton, aren't you, tomorrow?

So, ladies and gentlemen, it's evidence -- and I'm not joking -- it's evidence that my family -- I always tell you about how I owe you and how much I care about you all. But my whole family does, because my family knows what you've done for me -- not just in my political life, what you've done for them. You know, I told you before I owe you all. I owe the fire fighters in my state.

I will not bore you again, but my mom remembers and knows full hand, since she helped me raise my children, when your guys used the jaw of life to save my two boys. My mom knows, and so when she said, talk to them -- she didn't know exactly when -- but talk to them -- because she also knows you saved my life. And you know the story behind that. And she also knows you saved my home, because this isn't just about me and my sons and my wife, it's -- I just think you guys underestimate the impact you have on families.

The job you do every day that you do -- you put on that helmet, you put on that gear, you jump on the back of that truck, and you jump on that ambulance and you do what you got to do, and you say that's your job. Well, to you it's a job; to us it's our lives. And we owe you. And I just want you to know that it is something that everyone in my family fully understands.

I would not have ever become a United States senator, and obviously I wouldn't be here if that hadn't happened were it not for the fire fighters in my state. As I've told you before and I'll say it again for the national press, we got three political parties in Delaware -- Democrats, Republicans and fire fighters. (Applause.)

And I didn't realize it, but every once in a while -- every once in a while I say a lot of things. (Laughter.) I have a bad habit of telling you what I think. (Laughter.) And in my first campaign in 1972, I stood before the fire fighters in my state -- all professional, both volunteer and paid -- and they were all together. And I said, look, folks, I need your help. And I said -- and I used the phrase, there are three political parties in the state, and if you've got to have one, I choose the fire fighters. Well, the firefighters kept my back my entire political career, as well as in terms of my personal life. And so I owe you in more ways than one.

You know, each and every day, I, like you, read the papers about another fire fighter who's lost his life, another father of three who courageously heads into a building to save an entire building of families, but tragically leaves his own life behind -- and a family behind. For me, this debt is personal, like it is for so many. And there is only one way to repay that debt -- and I mean this sincerely, and I hope my career has demonstrated I mean it -- is to equip you, is to train you, and is to give you everything you need not only to protect our lives, but to protect those of your fellow fire fighters. (Applause.)

Like you, I don't want to read another obituary about a fire fighter who lost his life by putting himself in harm's way for the good of the community. I don't want to open the newspaper and see the story of Kevin Kelley of the IAFF Local 718 in Boston, who died in an apparatus accident, leaving behind a wife and three daughters. I don't want to read more about Michael Darrington's family -- I don't want anymore Michael Darringtons of International Fire Fighters Local 92 in Toledo; or Brion Newkirk of your union Local 888 in Greeley, Colorado; or Jeff Mann of Local 1883 in Henderson, Nevada -- or any other -- any other women and men who have, and we know, will lose their lives. The list is -- sadly goes on.

Now, look, I understand -- I'm a realist. I'm a pragmatist. I understand we can't make an inherently dangerous profession safe. I get that. I know that. So when I say these things sometimes my critics say, well, this is an inherently dangerous profession. I say, I get that. But we certainly can make an inherently dangerous profession safer than it is today. (Applause.) We can do that in the process.

I've read the studies conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration that found that most fire departments -- most fire departments are unable to respond to many of the common emergencies with the existing staff they have. I read another study, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which I referenced to you last time I spoke to you, that identified -- and I want the public to hear this -- the lack of staffing is the key cause of fire fighter fatality. (Applause.) Lack of staffing. (Applause.)

Look, folks, basically it's clear -- it's clear to me, it's clear to you, we got to make it clear to every American and every senator and congressperson, governor, county council person and mayor -- it's clear to me that the single greatest reason for fire fighters' deaths is that there's simply not enough fire fighters. I've read the studies, but you have lived the reality. Each and every day, you strap on your helmet and jump on the back of that truck. Look, ladies and gentlemen, my friends, I promise you that this is about to change in this administration. (Applause.)

Folks, I know you know me. But let me tell you about a guy you're going to get to know a lot better if you don't already -- is the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. He is as committed as I have been my whole career, and his when he was a legislator and as a senator, to making your job easier and less dangerous, both with better equipment, more fire fighters, and continued better training.

You know, we've already increased funding for stations, equipment, better training, more protective clothing. We included $210 billion in the Recovery Act. We're committed to increasing funding for SAFER, which will go directly to fire departments, so you can hire more trained fire fighters to work by your sides and retain -- important point -- retain fire fighters who are in danger, as they were in Philadelphia, of being laid off.

Finally, the Public Safety Employee Cooperation Act, blocked by the last administration, will pass this time, and the President will sign it and he'll sign it with pride. (Applause.) With pride, he'll sign it. (Applause.)

Look, folks, I don't want to take too much of your time. As my mother would say, God love you -- you've had to hear about 300 speakers already and there's 400 behind me. (Laughter.) But, folks, the truth is, as you commit to saving the lives of Americans who are in danger, you continue to do that and we will continue, Barack Obama and I will continue to do everything we can to not only deal with saving their lives but saving your lives. They're not just puffed-up platitudes. This is your new government taking bold action to ensure that as a community of fire fighters, you are as strong as possible.

It's in our nation's own naked self-interest, because when your community -- your community -- and I don't mean the one you live in -- the community I'm talking to right now, the men and women in front of me, and the tens of thousands of you across America, when your community is stronger, my community, the community I live in, is safer. It's that simple, straightforward.

You've heard me say it before. You know what you've heard me say, and I want to -- I'm going to continue to repeat it as long as there's a breath in me. Everybody has their own image of 9/11, that tragic day, the tragic events, where there's the towers crumbling, the Pentagon ablaze, that -- those brave Americans taking control of a cockpit and taking down a plane before it could take out its target in Washington, D.C., killing hundreds of Americans.

But I tell you, you've heard me say it, the single most vivid image emblazoned in my consciousness relating to 9/11 was that grizzled fireman coming out of that dust and human debris, but with a sense of rectitude and determination on his face. That single image, at a moment when America needed images, lifted America off its knees. That single image inspired the American people, let them know, just like the look on his face, we will get through this and by darn we will nail those guys who did it to us. That's the image that came through. It wasn't just all your fire fighters who lost their lives. It was the resolve.

And the thing about you guys that I love about you men and women is you're crazy. (Laughter and applause.) You're crazy. You're the same guys I hung out with in my neighborhood. (Laughter.) When it came time to picking a team, you were the guys I wanted on my team. I usually got them, too. (Laughter.) You're the guys, and women, who have that grit and determination that was communicated to the whole world.

You know, you guys jump off the back of the apparatus after a fire, and the interesting part that not as many Americans know is you take off that gear, and half the time some of you are hustling to get out of the fire hall, because you got to coach your daughter in her Little League game; you got to go to the Pop Warner game; you got to make sure that you show up with that group of people you help organize to build that ramp for the veteran who was paralyzed in Afghanistan or in Iraq.

Folks, the thing about you all that people don't get, is it runs through your whole being. The very thing that made you firefighters make you such darn good citizens. Think about it. Think about any other profession. How many people are so involved in the things in the community that matter to people's lives?

I know you like the excitement. As I said, you're crazy. (Laughter.) I know you like the excitement. I know it. But the thing you guys all try to hide is the pride you take in trying to help other people. You all go, yeah, yeah, yeah, right, yeah, right -- because it's not supposed to be. In a sense, that's a little bit too -- how do I say it -- that's not tough stuff. But that's what you guys have in your gut, a desire to help.

You know, everything you set your mind to, you succeed, because you're family. It's awful when a life is lost, but only you guys, cops and the military make sure, like we say -- they say in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we leave no one behind. Well, what people don't understand about you all is not only no one behind in the building; you leave no family behind who has lost someone in the building.

Folks, you know, look, you're the core of the communities we live in. And it's time we began to recognize your value. We did for that brief shining moment after 9/11, but it began to fade a little bit. It's time you not only got the momentary respect, but the sustainable respect you deserve. And by the way, don't, as I said before, don't tell me you respect me and tell me I can't organize. Don't tell me you respect me and you're not going to give me the sufficient training. Don't tell me you respect me and not give me the machinery and apparatus I need to do my job. Don't tell me you respect me and tell me I got to do my job with fewer people, knowing I'm putting my other comrades at risk. Respect is more than a word.

And so my objective and the President's objective is to institutionalize that respect. It's not just about saying when you do something for us, thank you, and I really appreciate it. It's about the institutional respect of giving you the equipment, the training, the manpower, the capacity to protect yourself and your communities.

Look, folks, I can still see that fireman on 9/11 as vividly as I did back then. I see the firemen who saved the lives of my boys. I see the firemen that saved my life and took me down -- got me to Walter Reed. I see the firemen standing out my side -- outside my house in a pouring rain, and a woman firefighter and a police officer, a woman police officer, giving my wife a coat to put around her, taking their coat off because she was in her bathrobe and it was soaking through.

I can still see those guys in masks looking through the windows, that I could hardly see into my home. I see it when I see each of you. I see it when I talk to Harold*. I see the embodiment of sacrifice and courage that gave America and continued to provide some of its backbone. And it's time we thanked you all for what you do. It's time we repay an immeasurable debt that we have you, not a political constituency, but to the men and women who personally change the lives of so many of us.

It isn't about -- you've heard this trite phrase -- Democrats and Republicans. Hell, some of you guys are still stupid enough to be Republicans. (Laughter and applause.) I don't get it. I don't get it. That's a joke. I say to the national press -- they clap -- it is a joke. It is not a gaffe. It's a deliberate joke. (Laughter and applause.) But guess what? Even you guys didn't vote for me, I still love you. (Laughter.) Not as much as I love the others, but I still love you. (Laughter.)

Look, this is about kinship of character and commitment to country. I'll remember forever how indebted I am to all of you. I'll remain forever your friend, no matter what you do. I love you all. And I thank you on behalf of our government. I thank you on behalf of our President. I thank you on behalf of the tens of thousands of people, the people just assembled in this room, just you all -- the thousands of people whose lives you've changed, who also owe you a debt.

Ladies and gentlemen, let's get to work. Thank you. (Applause.)

Joseph R. Biden, Remarks by the Vice President to the International Association of Firefighters 2009 Legislative Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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