WASHINGTON – If you think the federal government shutdown only affects federal employees, talk to Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan.
Khan, in Washington to testify Wednesday at a House hearing on reauthorization of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, had also planned to meet with FEMA officials while in town. But Tuesday’s furlough of federal employees forced a change in plans.
“The nonessential folks actually weren’t there to get some of the work done” at FEMA, Khan said after the hearing.
Furloughs also meant FEMA officials were not present to testify at the hearing, which led to heated exchanges between subcommittee Democrats and Republicans over the ongoing shutdown.
Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., called the hearing “a disservice” not only because members would not be able to question FEMA, but because “a hearing on the topic unrelated to the reopening of our government, no matter how critical, is really counterproductive.”
Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., called Carson’s comments “absurd.”
“What are we supposed to do … go back to our offices and sit there, watch movies and play cards?” Mullin asked. “We’re here to work.”
He told Khan and three other witnesses that he would “listen to everything you have to say and I hope – I hope – that we get this right, because so far we’re getting it wrong up here in D.C.”
Khan was at the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing to talk about FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) program, which has a team in Arizona to respond to disasters both nationally and locally.
Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., and chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, called the program “a model of what a federal, state, local and private-sector partnership can look like.”
Khan told the subcommittee he was proud to be a part of USAR, but also said there are areas in need of improvement. Included in those is consistent federal funding, he said.
With expenses being “more closely scrutinized” by the local agencies that participate in USAR and “staffing cuts that have not been seen in 30 years,” steady federal support is more important than ever, Khan said.
Civilians with special skills who deploy are also “critical” to USAR and deserve protection, Khan said.
But civilians who take part on a USAR team face uncertainty about liability protections and worker’s compensation insurance that uniformed personnel on the team do not, Khan said. And some have lost their day jobs because they deployed as volunteers.
The civilian volunteers are often “the best volunteers that are out there,” Khan said. Ensuring that they are confident that they can return to
their jobs, and know that they have insurance if they get hurt “is the right thing to do.”
“If not, people will start passing on the opportunity,” Khan said.
After the hearing – a good portion of which consisted of lawmakers sniping at each other over the government shutdown – Khan said he noticed a “sense of frustration… impacting the capital.”
But he said he “felt fortunate” to testify about USAR. He said he does not expect funding shortfalls for the program, despite the ongoing gridlock in Congress that he said had affected his visit.
“More than anything, we were hoping to get more work done while we were here,” he said.