WASHINGTON (AP) _ Election Day is nearly two years away and Al Gore hasn't officially declared his candidacy, but the nation's ``first responders'' in times of crisis aren't wasting any time.

The International Association of Fire Fighters on Thursday became the first national union to endorse Vice President Gore's expected campaign to become president in 2000.

``Firefighters and paramedics are known as the nation's first responders and that is why we wanted to be the first national organization to endorse the most active and involved vice president in our nation's history,'' said Al Whitehead, president of the 225,000-member union.

The union's membership is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, said union spokesman George Burke, but its legislative conference and national convention both authorized the union's executive board to make the endorsement.

An endorsement from the firefighters has tangible advantages: the national union and its local affiliates spend more than $8 million on politics during a two-year election cycle and its members, many of whom aren't covered by collective bargaining agreements, tend to be politically active.

``We're committed to helping him raise money,'' Burke said. ``We're going to step up like we did for Clinton the last time.''