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For Immediate Release
Office of the Vice President
May 6, 2004

Remarks by the Vice President to the 16th Annual National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner
Hilton Washington
Washington, D.C.
May 5, 2004

7:12 P.M. EDT

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you all very much. (Applause.) Thank you all. Well, thank you very much for that warm welcome. And I'd like to thank the former volunteer fire chief from Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania -- Congressman Curt Weldon, who is an old friend and colleague -- for the introduction tonight.

I've been looking forward to this evening. You've got a full agenda, and your emcee, Hal Bruno is going to keep things moving. Right, Hal? Someone told me that if I keep the speech short, I just might be handed a fine-looking helmet. (Laughter.) I accept.

Hal and I go back a long time. For decades, this man has been among the most respected journalists in the nation. He's been solid, truthful, unpretentious, and fair. And in all those years, he's also been a volunteer fireman. And nobody knows or cares more about firefighters and their families. He recently had a stay in the hospital for heart bypass surgery -- welcome to the club, Hal. (Laughter.) We all want you to know how much we appreciate your good work, and how glad we are to see you tonight. (Applause.)

We've got a lot members of Congress here tonight. I don't want to offend anybody by leaving them out -- got a few old friends and colleagues: John McCain, Joe Biden. Paul Sarbanes I just saw outside. Sherrie Boehlert, of course and Curt Weldon, and many, many others. And I'm told Joe Allbaugh is in the audience tonight. Joe shouldn't be hard to spot. (Laughter.) He -- that's Joe. (Applause.) He looks like a guy who can handle a big job, and he proved it with his outstanding service as Director of FEMA. (Applause.) I also want to recognize another excellent FEMA Director who is here with this evening, as well -- James Lee Witt of Arkansas. (Applause.)

Tonight, we honor firefighters and emergency personnel in communities across America, who are the first line of defense against all hazards. And just about everybody, at one time or another, has needed your help or watched you at work. We have seen firefighters and other first responders arrive on the scene, and take control of the most chaotic situations. We have seen you work to exhaustion, and keep going back until the last person is saved. And our whole nation has seen the way you look out for each other, and care for the families of those who fall. When Americans look at a firefighter, they see the very best in their communities. You command a special respect in this country. And not just once, but many times over during your careers, you earn that respect with your discipline, your decency, and your courage.

As you meet your responsibilities, the federal government must do its part in providing the resources that our firefighters need. The past year brought many successes on Capitol Hill, thanks to the leadership of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus. These successes include robust funding for the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, which received nearly $750 million this fiscal year for direct grants to local fire departments and to support to fire safety programs. (Applause.) This funding is on top of the more than $8 billion that the Department of Homeland Security has allocated or awarded to state and local governments under a variety of domestic preparedness grant programs, many that directly bolster the capabilities of first responders including firefighters. In addition, Congress reauthorized the United States Fire Administration, passed the Firefighting Research and Coordination Act, to develop new safety standards, and passed the Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefit Act. And all of these measures were proudly signed into law by President George W. Bush. (Applause.)

We must support our nation's firefighters and emergency personnel, because the demands of your job are greater than ever. You are prepared, after all, for the millions of calls that must be answered every year. And in this period of testing for America, every firefighter knows that the next alarm could be a terrorist attack. You have always been essential to the security of our communities, and now you are essential to the defense of our homeland.

Americans know you are up to the job, because we have seen the character of firefighters in some of our most desperate hours. I was at the White House on the morning of September 11th, 2001, and throughout that day watched and received reports on the situation in New York, and across the river at the Pentagon. There were conversations with the President and military commanders, and decisions to be made about civilian flights, military air cover over major cities, and disaster response. In many ways throughout our entire government -- at the federal, state, and local levels -- the attacks of that day brought out the very best in people under hard and extremely difficult circumstances. Yet in a day filled with heroic acts, few images stand out more clearly than the conduct of our firefighters. And when the day was over, no realization was more sobering than the knowledge that we had lost thousands of our fellow citizens, and hundreds of firefighters on a mission of rescue. They were last seen running into the Twin Towers and up the stairs. And we will always remember them as they were at that hour: brave souls, faithful to their duty, and to one another.

When the President sent our troops into Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, some of them found inspiration in reminders of why they were going into battle. On packs and planes, and even on a few bombs, they put the letters, F-D-N-Y and N-Y-P-D. The inspiration seemed to work -- (Applause.) The inspiration seemed to work: The people of Afghanistan have been liberated, the Taliban is out of business, and the terrorists are on the run.

As President Bush has made clear from the very beginning, we are in a different kind of war. 9/11 changed everything for this country. In the space of a few hours, we saw the violence and the grief that 19 men can inflict. And we had a glimpse of the even greater harm terrorists wish to do to us. The terrorists hate our country and everything we stand for in the world. They seek even deadlier weapons, and they would use them against us, if they could acquire them. In the face of this danger, we have only one option, and that's to take the fight to the enemy. (Applause.)

The Taliban were the first to see our determination, and as that country moves towards democracy, it remains dangerous for the men and women of our military who are still there. Our forces are on the offensive, and they will stay on the hunt. They know who they're looking for -- and one by one, they will bring them to justice.

In Iraq, where a dictator cultivated ties to terror and sought to arm himself with the world's most deadly weapons, America led a mission to make the world safer, and to liberate the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein defied the demands of the civilized world and he has experienced the consequences. More than a year after that country was liberated, a collection of killers is trying to undo Iraq's progress and throw that country into chaos. These men are not just acting from blind rage. The terrorists in Iraq have a strategic goal. They want to shake our will, and show the world that America runs from a challenge. Day by day, they are learning otherwise.

Iraq is a central front in our war on terror. The defeat of tyranny and violence in that nation, and the rise of democracy in the heart of the Middle East, will be a crucial setback for international terror. We will do what is necessary -- destroying the terrorists, returning sovereignty to the Iraqi people, and helping them to build a stable, self-governing nation. Because we are strong and resolute, Iraq will never go back to the camp of tyranny and terror. (Applause.)

And America will never go back to the false comforts of the world before 9/11. Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness. (Applause.) This nation has made a decision: We will engage the enemy, facing him with our military in Afghanistan and Iraq today, so we do not have to face him with armies of firefighters, police, and doctors on the streets of our own cities. (Applause.)

Many of our personnel in Iraq are firefighters, including a reservist from Middletown, Connecticut named Keith Clark. When his unit was sent to Iraq, fellow members of the Middletown Fire Department told a reporter they had faith in him because, after all, this is a man who has trained to face danger. Their only regret was that they wouldn't be there to watch his back. The firefighters held a gathering to give Keith a proper sendoff. In his honor, they put a blue star service banner atop the Main Street fire station, and the president of Local 1073 said, we're going to keep it up until he comes home.

That's the kind of spirit and camaraderie that places firefighters among the most admired men and women in our society. This is a nation of good and decent people. And in your fierce brotherhood, in the courage and loyalty you show every day, America's firefighters set the standard. I count it a privilege to stand with you tonight. The people of our nation look up to you. And tonight, on their behalf, I thank each and every one of you. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

END 7:25 P.M. EDT

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