THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT DURING 6TH ANNUAL NATIONAL FIRE AND EMERGENCY SERVICES DINNER
The Washington Hilton Washington, DC
8:03 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for that warm welcome; and distinguished head table guests. I don't know about being America's Fire Chief but I do know whenever I ring the bell, Steny Hoyer shows up. (Laughter.) So today, he rang the bell and I showed up. And I am honored to be in your presence tonight.
I want to recognize, not only Steny but the other members of Congress who are here. I'm sure they've been introduced already, but Congressman Curt Weldon and Congressman Sherry Boehlert, Senator William Roth, Congressman Howard Coble. I think you will find that support for Fire and Emergency Services is a bipartisan affair in the United States Congress. And I think you will find that I have tried to be a good partner to them.
I also want to recognize some people who are not here, including Congressman Dick Durbin and Congressman Bill Emerson, who are the co-chairs of the House Task Force on Natural Disasters; and to acknowledge the legislators of the year you identified, Chairman Norm Mineta and Senator Dan Inouye.
I also want to thank, for their work in the administration and their work to come, our Fire Administratordesignate, Carrye Brown. And I'd like to say with a special word of pride how very much I appreciate the extraordinary work of one of my fellow Arkansans, James Lee Witt, the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Applause.)
You know, when I became President there were many jobs, but there were two or three jobs that I thought had suffered under previous administrations without regard to party, because they had not been filled with people who had actually experience doing what they were hired to do. One was the Small Business Administration. And I put someone in the Small Business Administration, not who had been a long time political associate of mine, although he is a friend of mine, but someone who had spent 20 years financing and starting and expanding small businesses. It occurred to me that a person that did that job, since that's where most of the job growth is in America, would be better off if he or she had known something about it before they showed up at the door.
And when it came time to pick a FEMA director, as a Governor in the state that had the highest death rate per capita from tornadoes in the country, I knew a little something about what it was like to deal with FEMA over a very long period of time, under administrations of both parties in Washington. And that's why I asked the person who had done the emergency services work in our state and had gone through fires and floods and tornadoes and seen whole towns blown away to do that job.
Most people think that our administration has done pretty well in responding to earthquakes in California, floods in the Middle West, hurricanes in the South, severe winter weather that hit so many of our states last year. But we know that all the federal responses in the world only work when it is matched with and really supports the courage that you show on a daily basis in all of your states and communities.
I used to tell people that when I was the Governor of my state I had a real life. And back when I had a real life, one of the things I did was to work on trying to extend fire service to our rural areas with a direct funding stream every year that went to volunteer fire departments, and with a number of other training and other legislative initiatives that made it possible during my 12 years of service to create over 700 volunteer fire departments in our state. I'm very, very proud of that. And I'm proud of the work that all of them did, and what it did for people's fire insurance rates and how many homes and lives were saved as a result of that effort.
On Monday, yesterday, I went to Engine 24 and Ladder 5 in New York City, in Greenwich Village, to honor three fireman who 40 days ago paid the ultimate tribute. John Drennan, of Staten Island, who hung on for 40 days with massive injuries over most of his body -- his funeral Mass will be said at St. Patrick's Cathedral tomorrow -- a captain, 49 years old, with a wonderful wife, a schoolteacher, and four children; and two young firemen, James Young, of Queens and Christopher Siedenburg, of Staten Island, who was only 25 years old when he died.
Sometimes I think that we forget how dangerous it can be to put yourself in the line of natural disasters, and sometimes manmade disasters for your fellow human beings.
I was deeply moved when I met the partners of those three firemen who died, and I will always remember them. Especially will I think of them when I have the privilege and the honor of signing the arson prevention act. I am going to be proud to sign this law, not just to make your lives easier, but to reduce the number of wasted lives and wasted dollars we lose to arson every day -- needless and senseless tragedies that might otherwise be prevented.
I want to thank all of you who worked so hard on that law, all of you at the grass roots, all of you in the Congress, and the chief sponsors, Senator Dick Bryan and Representative Rick Boucher. I can't wait to have the chance to sign that. And I'm sure that Congressman Hoyer and Congressman Weldon and some of the others here will have some idea about exactly how we ought to sign that. And once again, when they ring the bell, I will show up.
I noticed that the title of your annual report was, "Protecting a Nation at Risk." I thought you were describing my job. (Laughter and applause.) I'll say this: There will always be risks involved in the work of freedom and the work of holding a civilized society together. The great tension we face today all around the world, in some ways, can be seen in the work you're doing against arson.
There is today no Cold War, no imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, although nuclear dangers remain. It is wonderful to think that in just the last 15 months that three of the four countries in the former Soviet Union that had nuclear weapons have committed to getting rid of them; and Russia, which stills has nuclear weapons, and the United States no longer point their warheads at one another. That is a wonderful thing to consider.
But it's also true that we are fighting a constant battle all around the world between order and chaos; and between those who wish to live in harmony and freedom, and those who would abuse that very freedom. You see it whether it's in the ethnic brutality and the civil war in Bosnia; or the rise, the lamentable rise, of organized crime in Russia where organized criminal thugs murder bankers at will who are trying to see free-enterprise take root there; or in the work of the gangs; and some of the horrible tragedies within our own cities and communities.
Those of you who are willing to literally put your lives on the line for other people's interests, for people who are in trouble, are the ultimate rebuttal to the cynics who believe we cannot create a world of justice and freedom where people live together in peace and honor. But we will, all of us, for the rest of our lives be fighting and working to make sure that our nation is not put at risk and that our world can become safer by making sure the forces of order win over the forces of chaos, and that the people who wish to have freedom are also willing to exercise it with responsibility.
Every day, your lives symbolize that -- the first and most enduring lesson of our democracy, and I thank you for it.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
(The President is presented with award, U.S. Mint coin, and Franklin Mint eagle.)
THE PRESIDENT: I promise when I was invited to come, I had no idea I was going to receive any of these things. And you probably don't know this, Congressman Hoyer, but I have sometime been a collector of eagles. I love them very much. And in our state, Mr. Witt and I, we did a lot of work trying to preserve the American Eagle. And by the time I left office, we had the second largest number of eagles of any state in the country. They do symbolize what is best about our country, and I will treasure this. Of all the ones I have collected, I think I have none that is as beautiful as this, and I'm very, very grateful.
Thank you so much. (Applause.)
END 8:12 P.M. EDT