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International Association of Fire Fighters: 2019 Legislative Conference

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
International Association of Fire Fighters: 2019 Legislative Conference
Washington, DC
Monday, March 11, 2019

Thank you, President Schaitberger.

I am pleased to be here today with the IAFF leadership team, and so many IAFF members. You are patriotic heroes in your communities, who bravely deliver life-saving fire and rescue services and emergency medical care. The Department of Transportation is proud to be your partner as the lead federal agency supporting our nation’s Emergency Medical Services.

For example, the Department helps ensure fire fighter safety by certifying SCBA tanks. And let me note that the Department’s Chief of Staff, Todd Inman, is a former First Responder who taught courses for the National Fire Academy, and conducted arson investigations across the country.

The effectiveness of the DOT-fire fighter partnership was highlighted in recent years as hurricanes struck Texas, Florida and the Atlantic Coast. Fire fighters were among the first on the ground to help with evacuation, rescue and recovery from the devastation. As you know, the first line of defense is at the state and local level where officials and first responders know the situation best. But the Department always stands ready to help local communities with the assistance they need to inspect and reopen damaged transportation infrastructure, and to get impacted airports up and running.

So it’s critical that we continue to make investments that both strengthen our country’s infrastructure, and help you better protect your communities. 

Let me share my priorities for the Department. First, safety is our number one priority.

The second priority is rebuilding and refurbishing infrastructure to grow the economy and improve quality of life for everyone.

The third priority is preparing for the future, by engaging with technology to address legitimate concerns about safety, security, and privacy without hampering innovation.

In FY 2018, the Department dispersed $63 billion in grants to help state and local governments refurbish infrastructure. This year, the Administration is hopeful that new infrastructure investment will be enacted on a bipartisan basis, and looks forward to seeing what Congress will suggest. 

In addition to infrastructure, the Department is strengthening our partnerships with fire departments through training and grant programs.

In FY 2019, the Department will award $28.3 million in Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness grants. These grants - available to states, territories and tribes - will help train first responders who develop emergency response plans.

And, the Department has assembled a working group with IAFF to explore new options for quickly relaying hazardous materials information to the emergency response community. By working within the FirstNet framework that is already in place, the Department can avoid a patchwork of systems that could slow down commerce and negatively impact safety.

On February 5th and 6th, 2019, DOT also hosted a Hazardous Materials Emergency Response Roundtable. It was a partnership with FEMA, the U.S. Fire Administration, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and IAFF. The discussions focused on identifying national successes and challenges in Haz-Mat preparedness and prevention, to help ensure a safe and effective response to incidents.

And as you know so well, effective traffic incident management is a key component to improving safety – for both drivers and emergency personnel.

That’s why I’m proud of the Department’s “National Traffic Incident Management Responder Training” (TIM). It has taught over 394,000 responders - including 187,000 EMS, Fire, and Rescue personnel. The Department’s goal is to train well over one million responders. Your continued participation is critical to achieving this goal. TIM training is available in all 50 States, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico – both in-person and online. Please encourage every member of your department to take this training program.

The Department also plays a key role in exciting new transportation technologies, which will help fire fighters and EMS save lives and enhance safety.

Drones, for example, are well on their way to mainstream deployment. As of February 2019, there were more than 1.3 million registered drones in this country. 316,000 of these were registered for commercial use. And today, there are more than 121,000 certified drone pilots, a job category that didn’t exist 5 years ago. To help safely integrate this new technology into our national airspace, the Department published 3 new precedent-setting rules in the Federal Register on February 12, 2019.

The proposals would allow drones to fly at night, over people and beyond line of sight without waivers, if certain safety conditions are met. In addition, the Department is asking stakeholders and the public to identify and comment upon drone security issues that may pose a threat to other aircraft, to people on the ground, or to national security.

As you know, drones have been especially helpful to fire fighters and first responders. They can help you:  

  • Quickly assess the impact of fires and natural disasters on communities;
  • Take thermal images of disasters and structural fires, which can save lives;
  • Make emergency deliveries of medical equipment; and,
  • Identify future training needs. 

The U.S. Forest Service is also researching the use of drones to support natural resource management, fight wildfires, and enhance law enforcement efforts. 

As we prepare for this exciting new development in aviation, the Department is also updating its approach to autonomous vehicle technologies.

On October 4th, 2018, the Department released “Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0.” This document supports the safe, reliable, and cost-effective integration of automation into our country’s surface transportation systems.  The potential of this technology to increase safety is especially noteworthy, because more than 37,000 lives were lost on our roads and highways in 2017 alone. 

As automated vehicle testing and operation increases, the fire fighter and first responder communities will play a key role in helping ensure public safety. For instance, responder personnel across many disciplines – including police, fire and EMS – will need training to safely interact with partially or fully-disabled autonomous vehicles at the scene of a crash. The Department looks forward to your continued collaboration, as we work to raise awareness about AV technology and develop emergency response protocols.

Another subject that weighs heavy on the President and First Lady and all of us is the opioid crisis, which destroys lives and communities, and fuels many types of crime. I know your departments see the effects of this crisis every day.

In 2017, this Administration declared war on the opioid crisis. The cabinet was convened, and all agencies were directed to use every appropriate emergency authority to fight it. The Department of Transportation is especially concerned. Safety is our number one priority, and drugs are a major threat to the safety of everyone on America’s roads.

To help address drug-impaired driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration works with safety stakeholders to develop training tools and raise awareness. It will take a sustained, comprehensive and collaborative effort from all our partners to combat the opioid crisis.

So the Department is proud to be your partner in saving lives, responding to natural disasters and training the next generation of fire fighters and emergency responders.

Your teams are first on the scene when incidents happen, helping to save lives and protect your communities. You run towards the danger.  I look forward to continuing to work together, to implement innovative solutions and technology to safely meet today’s emergency response challenges.

Thank you.

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Updated: Monday, March 11, 2019
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