Last month we marked the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, and remembered the bravery of the first responders who risked their lives to keep others safe that day. Police, firefighters, and medical personnel from the state, local, and federal levels all made heroic sacrifices.
On 9/11, my wife Jane was in Washington on a rare visit. When the attacks happened, planes were grounded, and she rented a car and drove straight home to Ohio to be with our three kids. As she was driving on a highway in Pennsylvania, she saw lights flashing. She recognized that it was Ohio Task Force One—an Urban Search and Rescue Response team we knew well—heading the other way, driving toward danger. Our Ohio search and rescue team was one of the first dispatched to Ground Zero in New York City.
She recognized the vehicle because we know the team and have known some of the men and women involved with that task force, including those who made that trip on 9/11.
There are 28 Urban Search and Rescue Response teams around this country, each made up of roughly 70 people with highly specialized skills, like firefighters, doctors and structural engineers. They conduct round-the-clock search and rescue operations in confined spaces, such as collapsed buildings, looking to save lives.
They perform tasks other first responders can’t, like heavy-rigging or lifting large and extremely heavy objects. Those capabilities were critical to our emergency response on 9/11, and they’ve been critical after hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and other emergencies since.
The members of these task forces volunteer to be part of the team. They leave their families, their jobs, and their ordinary lives on a moment’s notice when they’re needed to go into some of the most dangerous situations.
When many of these task force members volunteer, they have no financial protections against injury, job loss, or lawsuits. Sometimes when they come home they are injured or sick, and sometimes they are at risk of not having a job waiting for them. That high level of risk discourages some people from joining these search and rescue teams and weakens our emergency response.
After 9/11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which oversees these task forces, asked Congress to give task force members the protections they needed. I have authored legislation to do just that by protecting these first responders from lawsuits, from medical expenses, and from job loss as a result of their service. It’s called the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System Act, and it passed unanimously in the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee back in May.
The bill has the support of Senators from all over the country and from both parties, from the co-author Tom Carper of Delaware to John McCain of Arizona to Cory Booker of New Jersey and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Both FEMA and the International Association of Firefighters have endorsed my bill.
Just a few weeks ago at a committee hearing, I asked President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, about this legislation. His response: “I hope it passes.”
But despite having this bipartisan support, my legislation has been blocked on the Senate floor for months. At first it was blocked anonymously. What we later found out is that it is being blocked because of election-year politics, even though nobody disagrees with the substance. I think that’s the kind of bitter partisanship that people are sick of, and a terrible disservice to these brave first responders.
Meanwhile, Ohio Task Force One continues their mission of helping others. They’re doing the same thing they did on 9/11, and the same thing they did after Hurricane Katrina. Right now, they’re helping people in North Carolina who have been affected by Hurricane Matthew, one of the strongest hurricanes to hit the region in decades. Just last week, a video went viral on the Internet showing Ohio Task Force One rescuing a veteran who was trapped in his house.
We ought to support these brave men and women and give their families peace of mind by ensuring that they won’t be bankrupted by volunteering for all of us. For their sake, and for the sake of our emergency response system, it’s time to put politics aside and pass this legislation.
Rob Portman is a United States senator from Ohio.