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03.06.2017 - International Association of Firefighters

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
International Association of Firefighters
Legislative Conference
Washington, D.C.
March 6, 2017

Thank you, President Schaitberger for your introduction and for the opportunity to join you here today. 

It’s good to be back, and to see so many friends and familiar faces! 

The first time I addressed you, our country was reeling from the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  On that day, the world watched as your brave brothers and sisters ran towards danger, sacrificing themselves to save others in acts of unprecedented courage and heroism.  

In the aftermath of those attacks, I was so honored to meet and talk with many of your brothers and sisters and their families when I visited New York as Secretary of Labor. 

Meeting those heroes left a profound and lasting impression on all of us. So in 2003—to honor the sacrifices that firefighters and police made on September 11, 2001—we inducted the first rank-and-file union members ever into the Labor Hall of Fame: the rescue workers of September 11th. 

The headlines of that day have faded.  But the memory of those sacrifices will never fade.  They will never cease to inspire.  And they will never be forgotten.  How could they?  Every single day, countless families have you to thank for rescuing a loved one, protecting their homes, or saving their lives. 

How many firefighters and EMS technicians have been mobilized this past year alone to battle the devastating wildfires in Appalachia and California?  In 2016, more than 5.4 million acres were incinerated by more than 65,000 fires!   When an emergency happens, you answer the call, no matter the day or time.  

In recognition of that fact, when I was Secretary of Labor, the team worked closely with you and other first responders to ensure that your unique contributions were recognized and protected when the Department of Labor modernized the outdated overtime laws.  

 You do not have nine to five jobs, and the revised overtime rules recognized that fact.  You helped us educate the public about the rule.

I’ve been on the job as Secretary of Transportation for just a little over a month. During my confirmation hearing, I made it clear that safety would continue to be a priority.  That’s why I chose to give one of my first speeches here at the IAFF, because your members are on the front lines of safety. 

Not only do your risk your lives every day, but your profession has set a clear example of the value of prevention as the highest form of safety.

People are alive today because you championed improved building codes, fire prevention, first aid training, and emergency preparedness.  Prevention and preparedness make a huge difference!

DOT, firefighters, and the IAFF already have a history of working together on safety and preparedness issues. And I assure you that collaboration will continue.

Here are just a few of the issues we have collaborated on:

  • Shipboard fire-fighting response
  • Placarding requirements on over-the-road trucks and railroad cars
  • Standards for airport fire-fighting, and
  • Safe transportation of hazardous, biological, corrosive and explosive materials

On these and other issues, the IAFF has worked with DOT and other stakeholders to protect the public and raise awareness of safety hazards.

An especially strong partnership has developed between the IAFF and PHMSA —the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.   Since 1995, they have worked together to train pipeline inspectors and promote the safe shipment of hazardous or volatile materials. PHMSA grants have helped the IAFF to build a cadre of more than 300 hazmat safety instructors across the nation.  All instructors are active or retired fire fighters who teach during off-duty hours.  The program covers 50-states and ensures that, when a training program is needed, a qualified instructor is available.

These instructors, in turn, have passed on their expertise to more than 10,000 trainers in more than 500 classes nationwide.  In this way, federal resources are leveraged to allow the nation’s largest and most respected organization representing fire fighters to provide hands-on training to first responders.

In fact, the Director of Operations in the Office of the Secretary, Todd Inman, was among those certified by the courts as an expert on fire causes and origin investigation. He served as an instructor for the National Fire Academy, and contributed to the National Fire Protection Association NFPA 921.

In 2016, the Department also provided $20.4 million in Hazardous Emergency Preparedness (HMEP) grants to states, territories, and Native American tribes.  These grants enhance their ability to respond to hazardous materials transportation incidents.  

In addition, PHMSA publishes an Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG), which I’m sure you all know well.  It gives guidance for those critical first 30 minutes after a hazmat transportation accident.  The Department hopes to place one of these books in every public emergency vehicle nationwide.  To date, 14.5 million free copies have been distributed.

Let me note that this guidebook is continually updated.  So if any of you or your colleagues has suggestions, contact PHMSA’s Emergency Response Working Group.  Their email is: ERGComments@DOT.gov.

There are many other safety programs at DOT.  NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is best known for conducting car safety crash tests.  But it also has an Office of Emergency Medical Services, which publishes guidelines for training EMS personnel. 

In addition, it conducts public awareness campaigns against drunk driving, and continues to research better methods to combat drunk driving.

More recently, it is tackling a very 21st century challenge: distracted driving.  When distracted drivers strike other vehicles, they hurt not only themselves but other drivers.  They sometimes hit first responders rushing to the scene.  That’s one of the reasons the Federal Highways Administration issued guidance recommending that emergency vehicles park in a diagonal fashion. 

But more importantly, the department has partnered with state authorities to remind the public that they must pull over and give emergency personnel a wide berth. We all have seen it too many times: drivers who refuse to pull over and just sit in traffic when emergency vehicles, sirens blaring, approach.  That’s why this past month, Colorado and the Department cooperated on a public education effort called, “Move Over – It’s the Law!”

Looking to the future, there are exciting new technologies that have the potential to not only revolutionize transportation, but safety as well.  I’m talking, of course, about automated vehicles and drones.

35,092 people died in traffic crashes in 2015, a seven percent increase over the previous year.  In the first nine months of 2016, fatalities increased again by eight percent over the previous year.  Research shows that 94 percent of crashes are due to human error.  Automated technology has the potential to help eliminate human error and, therefore, reduce crashes and fatalities. So there’s a lot at stake in getting it right.

As a first step, NHTSA issued a Federal Automated Vehicles Policy this past September. It is not a set of rules, but a guide. We will be consulting with you and other stakeholders as we update and amend it, to ensure it strikes the right balance.

Drones are another exciting emerging technology.  Companies are already testing commercial applications for drones.  But drones also have a role to play in safeguarding our infrastructure and assisting in disasters.

Drones have been used to protect first responders in accidents involving derailments and hazardous materials.  They can help track forest fires.  While drones have a lot of potential to assist responders, they can also pose a problem if not carefully monitored.   We will ask for your input as the FAA develops standards and regulations to ensure that drones can be safely integrated into our country’s airspace and in emergency situations.

The federal role in these emerging technologies is still in its infancy.  So we need your continued engagement and discussion. Your experience and expertise are vital to help us craft policies and implement programs that strengthen safety and save lives.

Let me close by sharing one final thought:  Today, some people believe there are no more heroes.  I couldn’t disagree with them more.  I look out at this audience and all I see are heroes: a hero in every seat, in every row, and in every room where you are meeting.    

You are on the front lines every day, protecting, preparing and providing lifesaving services to everyone who needs you.

Thank you for all you do to protect and keep our communities safe every day. Thank you-- and your families-- for the sacrifices you have made and will make.  Please give your loved ones a special message of appreciation from the Secretary of Transportation – thanking them for their support, which enables you to do the job that you do to keep our country safe. 

God bless you, God bless your families and God bless America!

Updated: Wednesday, March 8, 2017
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