Finance

Infrastructure bill carves out boosts to first responders, wildland firefighters

A staffer takes binders regarding the bipartisan infrastructure plan outside a meeting of Senate on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.
Greg Nash

Technology upgrades for 911 call centers, firefighter wage increases and updates to roadside safety precautions are just some of the provisions in the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill that would boost funding and support for a host of first responders on the job around the country.

One of the largest expenses in the $1 trillion bill would be $600 million geared in part toward the salaries and expenses of federal wildland firefighters. The bill would also direct the departments of Agriculture and Interior to convert at least 1,000 seasonal wildland firefighter jobs to full-time, permanent and year-round federal employment as well as develop and implement mitigation strategies that would help firefighters reduce their exposure to environmental hazards.

{mosads}Those administration department heads would also be in charge of establishing programs that help firefighter personnel address mental health needs including post-traumatic stress disorder.

In certain geographical locations where officials find it difficult to recruit or retain firefighting personnel, the legislation suggests increasing base salaries by $20,000 per year or an amount equal to 50 percent of their base salaries, whichever is smaller.

Federal firefighters currently make less than $13 an hour on average, according to CNBC, which is below California’s minimum wage and less than the income state firefighters earn annually.

The measure comes as California’s fire season is already outpacing last year’s historic numbers.

Between Jan. 1 and July 11 of this year, nearly 5,000 fires in California burned more than 142,000 acres of land, according to Cal Fire. Those statistics topped the number of wildfires California saw in the first six months of last year by more than 700, and exceeded the number of acres burned during the same time in 2020 by more than 103,000.

But the blazes are not just limited to the west. As of Oct. 13, more than 47,000 wildfires have burned over 6.5 million acres of land across the United States this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The bill passed the Senate in August, but has so far languished in the House where Democratic leaders have struggled to coalesce their members around a vote on the legislation due to a contingent of progressive lawmakers who first wanted a proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation package to pass.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has set another deadline of Oct. 31 for members to vote on the infrastructure portion of the negotiations while senators and progressive lawmakers spar over the final price tag of the reconciliation framework and what eventually ends up in that bill. 

Should it pass in its current form, the infrastructure bill would also aim to improve communication technology when it comes to 911 call centers, setting aside $10 billion to help state and local governments implement the Next Generation 911 Act, an effort spearheaded by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).

{mossecondads}That portion of legislation would modernize the country’s 911 call centers by equipping them to manage text messages, pictures, videos and other pieces of information submitted by smartphones, tablets and other devices.

Klobuchar said in a statement to The Hill that money to enhance such technologies would “allow our first responders to communicate seamlessly.” 

The Surface Transportation Investment Act, sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), is also incorporated in the infrastructure bill. That part allocates roughly $250 million over five years that could benefit first responders through a variety of grants that address community safety, hazardous materials emergency preparedness, supplemental training and hazardous material training.

A modified version of the Protecting Roadside Fire Responders Act, written by Sen. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill), also included in the behemoth bill, calls for enhanced digital technology to notify drivers if they are approaching roadside first responders and instruct them to follow “move over” laws that require drivers to change lanes away from stopped vehicles.

The bill would also require that all new passenger and some commercial vehicles be equipped with advanced driver assistance systems such as automatic braking, forward collision warnings and lane departure notices to help prevent distracted driving accidents that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates causes 3,000 deaths and 400,000 injuries to first responders each year.

President Biden has traveled the country this year touting the infrastructure bill, one of his administration’s key agenda items. He was in his childhood hometown of Scranton, Pa., last week where he argued in favor of his economic agenda as a way to offer American families “breathing room” and put the U.S. in position to compete with other nations.

These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency. They’re about expanding opportunity, not having opportunity denied,” Biden said.

“We haven’t passed a major infrastructure bill for decades in this country,” he added. “We can’t afford to sit while other countries pass us by. We’re going to breathe new life into the economy and our workforce.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Catherine Cortez Masto Cheri Bustos Dick Durbin Firefighter first responders Front Lines Joe Biden Maria Cantwell Nancy Pelosi Roger Wicker Tammy Duckworth

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