Friday, April 3, 2009

REMARKS BY THE VICE PRESIDENT AT THE 21ST ANNUAL NATIONAL FIRE AND EMERGENCY SERVICES DINNER

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, thank you. (Applause.) It's an honor to be back with you. (Applause.) It's a genuine honor to be back with you. (Applause.)

Ladies and gentlemen, please -- please sit down. I'm not used to these standing ovations, I'm a Vice President. (Laughter.) Anyone from Delaware in the house? (Applause.) I know you all know we Delawareans, we take inordinate pride in our fire service in our state. And I just want you to know we also take an inordinate amount at how many show up for this dinner.

I want to tell you though, straight up, first thing I asked when I got here, I said, "How many Delawareans here?" When they told me the number, I said, "Good." Because had it been less than last year, I really would have been angry, I'll tell you. (Laughter.)

Warren, thank you for that -- for that introduction, and it's great to be back with all of you, and with so many other friends I have here. And so many people have become my friends that I've traveled the country with, with the firefighters always beside me

Look, before we get going I want to mention one personal friend who is not here tonight, Hal Bruno. Hal, I should mention, as you probably know, just celebrated his 80th birthday. And Hal has been experiencing some health problems. And I know I speak on behalf of everyone, everyone in this room and everyone who cares so deeply about Hal, that Hal felt as deeply about firefighters as we do him. Hal, if somehow we can get this to you, we want you to know we wish you good health, and you're in our thoughts and our prayers. And come next year, because it ain't the same without you being here. (Applause.)

And there's one other person who is not here tonight. He resigned from the Senate -- didn't resign, but didn't run again. He’s one of my closest friends, and he kind of got a kick in the teeth -- he lost his wife, who was his best friend and his closest ally his whole life, Paul Sarbanes. Paul Sarbanes has been, in all my years in the Senate, there's no one who supported the firefighters as a senator and as a person more strongly than Paul did. And I want you to keep Paul in prayers. The memorial service is tomorrow. But he's going through a difficult time many of you have had to face.

So it's good -- back -- to be back here among so many of my friends. And when I say "friends," as you know, I don't use the term lightly. Friends are those who you can count on when you need them most. And by that definition, every one of you in this room is my friend. It's not -- it's not -- I'm here -- everybody seemed surprised backstage, you know, "He came this year." Why wouldn't I come? Why wouldn't I come? You've been the most loyal -- (applause) -- decent group of people. (Applause.) And I want you to know when I'm not Vice President, and I'm not doing anything, I'll still come, because I want to tell you I owe you. I owe you. But not only do I owe you, our nation owes you.

It's an important debt that, in the White House at least, we try to repay every single solitary day. Every day I go to my office, each and every day when I pick up the paper and read about another lost life, another father of three who courageously is heading in to save an entire building of -- full of families, but tragically leaving his own family behind.

For me, as you know, this debt is personal. And for me there is only way to repay you. And that's to equip you properly, and make conditions safer for each and every one of you every day you step into harm's way -- each and every one of you. I promise you we will not stop until we don't have to read another obituary about a firefighter who has fatally put himself in harm's way -- (applause) -- always for the good of the community; until we won't have to open the newspaper and see how just yesterday, Captain Manny Rivera of Trenton, passed away from a heart attack after rescuing a victim, and having -- in the process leaving five children behind; until we don't have to read about Fire Chief Nolan Ray Schmidt of Hydro, Oklahoma; 37 years old, a volunteer since he was 18 years old -- leaving behind a wife and two daughters, ages four and two. Look, I know that famous quote that: Firemen never die, they just burn forever in the hearts of the people whose life they saved. But I tell you what, I believe it to be true -- but it’s little consolation to the families at the time of the loss.

But, folks, you know, we can do a lot better. We can do a lot better. We have to do better. And I promise you we will do better. It’s time to do everything -- and I mean everything we can -- to reduce the dangers you face every day. You think about the dangers we face -- we don’t think nearly enough about the dangers you face. And to be able to better prepare you for the perils that are part of more than 20 million calls you receive annually -- you folks in this room represent the response to 20 million calls.

Now, look, I know -- I know you can’t make an inherently dangerous profession, an inherently dangerous job totally safe. I get it. I get it. But I know one thing for darn sure: We can make you a hell of a lot safer than you are today if we do what we have to do. Folks, we both know why I haven’t and you haven’t stopped reading about those tragedies. I read a study that you’ve read -- I hope -- conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration, that found that most fire departments are unable to respond to many common emergencies with the existing staffs they have.

I read another report by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, that identified the lack of staffing as the key cause of firefighter fatalities on a fire ground. Basically it’s pretty to clear to me that the single, greatest reason for the firefighter dying is that there are simply not enough firefighters. I've read the studies. But you've lived that reality every time you strap on a helmet and jump on the back of a truck.

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, I promise you this: This is about to change. This is about to change. (Applause.)

You heard the quote -- you've heard the quote by a mutual friend of a lot of ours in this room when he was around, he said, "When a man becomes a fireman, his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished." You know that was famously stated by the famous New York Fire Chief Ed Croaker. He went on to say: What he does after that is all in the line of duty.

Well, there’s truth in that statement, guys -- you all just live it. I can’t figure out what makes you all tick, but thank God you tick the way you do. You should talk about, it’s in the line of duty. You know, I want you to know our administration recognizes that you’ve all acted bravely just by becoming firemen. And now we owe it to you to make sure that all you do after that in your line of work is as safe as it can possibly be.

So I pledge to you tonight we’re going to make it happen. We’ll do -- we’ll do a lot. But we’ll do it both through better equipment and more firefighters to put the equipment to use. One alone isn’t enough. One alone is not enough. We’ve already increased funding for stations and equipment, better training, more protective clothing, including $210 million in the Recovery Act. Now, I get blamed for that -- but guess what? I'm happy to take credit for that. (Applause.) Because let me tell you, that $210 million is not enough, it’s not part of this extra, beyond the budget -- this is in the Recovery Act. And we’re committed to reauthorizing and increasing funding for SAFER,* which will go directly to fire departments -- you can hire more trained and professional firefighters; you're all professionals in this room.

You know, my volunteers are having trouble, it’s getting harder and harder. The same ethic doesn’t apply. People have 15 different jobs. We need some help. We’ve got to retain firefighters in the danger of being laid off and we’ve got to provide an environment where more people are willing to continue to do what so many of you volunteers have done your whole life.

The truth is, as you commit to saving the lives of endangered Americans, we have to do everything we can to save your lives. Even as we continue to face economic turmoil, we still have to remain committed to America’s bravest domestic defenders. And that's what you are -- you're so underestimated. You're so underestimated. You're not very good at blowing your own horn. The truth of the matter is you are the bravest defenders we have. Quite simply, our nation and our communities count on you, and it’s about time you can count on us. And I promise you, you’ll be able to count on this administration. Judge us by our deeds when these four years are over.

Ladies and gentlemen, that's not just a puffed-up platitude. This is your new government taking bolder action that the community of firefighters needs to make sure you’re as strong as possible. Again, I’ll go back to the thesis. We always talk about what it takes to make the public safer, and obviously that's the goal. But we don't spend nearly as much time of how we make it safer for you to make it safe for the public. Because I want to tell you straight up, and you don't talk about it this way: When your community, when the community of firefighters is stronger, when you have more of what you need, when you have sufficient personnel, our communities are stronger. And that's somehow, sometimes the missing link here. People don't quite see it that way. When you're safer, we're all safer.

I once read that all men are created equal; then a few became firefighters. (Laughter.) Well ladies and gentlemen, there's a whole lot of truth to that. (Applause.) Look, I know you guys. You guys jump off the apparatus after a fire, take off your equipment, jump in a car, and bust your rear end to get to the Little League field to go line it before the game. You show up because you don't want to miss your daughter's soccer team's game that you're the coach of. You head out into the communities, and you raise money for that veteran who lost his leg and needs a ramp built going up to his house so he can get in and out.

Actually, it seems to me -- it seems to me that you leap from your day jobs and head up doing exactly what we're all supposed to do as citizens. But the irony is you do it the most of any of us. You head right out on a mission that makes the rest of us look lazy. And you succeed every time. You're at the core of our communities, and it's time we recognized your value more than we have, and recognized your valor. We recognize your valor in those moments where it's so obvious, like 9/11. But it's amazing how quickly memory fades. It's amazing how quickly it fades.

So it's time, on a regular basis -- day in, day out, year in, year out -- you got the respect you deserve. You guys know how I feel, I know that. It's too easy -- it'd be too hard for me to hide it, and you've figured it out. But I want you to know the President recognizes it, too. He recognizes the sacrifices you made, and he admires what you're doing; he admires your courage. And he makes the same pledge to you I do: We will give you the manpower and the equipment you need to protect your brothers and sisters in arms, and to protect your neighborhoods, our neighborhoods from the fierce dangers you battle every single day. Well, we want to protect you more.

So you just keep doing what you're doing. Judge us by our actions. Those of you who know me, you know I don't say things I don't think I can deliver on. You know that every day -- every day I read something about fire service, or someone losing their life, or some life being saved -- I see the firemen who saved my life, and saved the lives of my children. Every day I see each and every one of you. Every time I look at my kids, I see you guys. I see the embodiment of sacrifice and courage that gave America its backbone right after 9/11. I see a group of men and women coming together with one goal in mind: Doing something for their communities, doing something for their neighbors, just simply doing something to make things better. More than 20 million times a year you guys do that. And it's time we thanked you for it, not just verbally. It's time we set in motion and begin to repay the immeasurable debt that not only I owe you, but the entire nation owes you.

Look, you know, you guys have heard me kid a lot, and the Delaware guys know I sort of coined a phrase back in 1972. I said there are three political parties: There's the Democrats, Republicans, and firefighters, and I knew which one I need -- (laughter) -- and which one I've had at my back this entire time. But you know, folks, this is not a political constituency. You guys aren't a political constituency. You're liberal/conservative, Democrats/Republicans.

The fact of the matter is, though, you are the men and women who I truly regard as my personal friends, and I'm not alone. This isn't about politics at all. It's about a kinship of character, and a commitment to country. I remain forever indebted to all of you. I remain forever your friend, and you know I love you all. As a famous writer once remarked, "I can think of no more stirring a symbol of a man's humanity to man than a fire engine."

And those of us who have been on the receiving end of hearing that fire engine, seeing that ambulance, seeing that rescue vehicle come, it is -- it is the symbol, the symbol of humanity. You don't come to have to hurt. You risk your lives -- some of you in circumstances where you've been shot at -- coming. And you do it for no other reason, no other reason to help somebody. And most times, you don't even know who in God's name they are, you just do it.

So I thank you on behalf of your government. I thank you on behalf of, I believe, all the American people, if they knew as much as I knew about you, would even be more generous in their requirements, the need to supply you with what you need. And I want to thank you for your unyielding humanity. And some of the guys from Delaware, I know, you don't want to -- humanity is a hard word to associate with them, you know what I mean? (Laughter.) But the truth of the matter is, as gruff and tough as you all act, as bad -- as tough -- I better watch myself. (Laughter and applause.)

I keep forgetting I'm not back at my fire hall. (Laughter.) But as rugged and -- (laughter) -- unconcerned as you all try to be, I know something that you know and most Americans don't know, you're all suckers. (Laughter.) You all have got big hearts. And you're all doing this for one reason: There is nothing, no way -- nothing you do, nothing you do is as big a repayment than when you look in the eyes of that victim; you look in that person you carried out of that fire; you look in that person who Jaws of Life you used to save them. And just the look in their eyes -- that's what makes you guys tick, that's what makes you guys tick. And that's why I love you.

So, folks, for all that you do to serve this country so bravely, I want to say on behalf of the President of the United States and myself -- and a grateful nation -- thank you, thank you, thank you. I love you. (Applause.)
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