Fire-industry advocates lick wounds, look ahead

Monday, January 1, 2007

WASHINGTON, D.C.--The November election struck a mighty blow to fire-industry interests here. But while industry officials are bemoaning the loss of two of their champions on the Hill--Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), among others--they're optimistic that they'll be able to rebuild a strong coalition of supporters here again.
Jim Dalton, National Fire Sprinkler Association director of public fire protection, said the Congressional Fire Caucus, founded 20 years ago by Weldon, was, before the election, the largest caucus on the Hill, with 341 members.
The titular head of the caucus is the honorary chair currently Joseph Biden (D-Del.),but Weldon has always been the main force behind the caucus.
Weldon, a former firefighter and a freshman legislator in 1988, made headlines when he extinguished a fire in then-Speaker Jim Wright's office. He undertook a successful effort that year to convince members of Congress that Congressional office buildings should be sprinklered.
"Weldon losing is a tremendous loss to fire protection. It's going to hurt just not having that presence there. And Rick Santorum worked very hard on the fire sprinkler bill," Dalton said.
Sprinkler industry efforts in recent years have focused on the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, which proposed giving a tax break to commercial property owners who retrofit with sprinklers.
Tom Hammerberg, president of the Automatic Fire Alarm Association, said Weldon represented the interests of the members of his association as well: "He was so proactive for the fire service and fire protection and he won't be there anymore."
The Fire Caucus Services Institute here is a non-profit, non-partisan fire protection education and lobbying group formed in 1989 that works closely with the caucus. Executive director Bill Webb said half of the caucus leadership is now gone.
"When Curt Weldon founded the caucus he could have made it a caucus for Republican members," Webb observed. "To their credit, they kept partisanship out of it." Dalton said he expects the earliest a new Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act would be introduced would be in March. "It was very wise going with a strong bipartisan approach. That's going to pay off now."