David vs. Goliath

Most likely, you have heard about the biblical story of the historic battle between David and Goliath; scripture reference 1 Samuel, Chapter 17. Briefly, the story goes that the Philistine army had gathered for war against Israelites. The two armies faced each other, camped for battle on opposite sides of a steep valley.

A Philistine giant measuring over nine feet tall and wearing full armor came out each day for forty days, mocking and challenging the Israelites to fight. His name was Goliath. Saul, the King of Israel, and the whole army were terrified of Goliath. One day David, the youngest son of Jesse, was sent to the battle lines by his father to bring back news of his brothers. David was just a young teenager at the time.

While there, David heard Goliath shouting his daily defiance and he saw the great fear stirred within the men of Israel. David declared that he was not afraid and volunteered to fight Goliath. It took some persuasion, but King Saul reluctantly agreed to let David fight against the giant. Dressed in his simple tunic, carrying his shepherd's staff, slingshot and five stones, David approached Goliath. As Goliath moved in for the kill, David reached into his bag and slung one of his stones at Goliath's head. David's well-aimed shot at a hole in Goliath's armor sank into the giant's forehead and brought him face down to the ground. David then took Goliath's sword and killed him.

Against all odds the enemy's fiercest warrior, dressed in full armor, was killed by a young lad armed only with a slingshot. There are many points of interest and valuable lessons in this epical story. The angle that I want to focus on in this article though, is preparedness.

Obviously a few inches off, and the story could have had a much different ending. But, then David was quite skilled with his slingshot. Was that a lucky shot? Maybe, but then they say that luck also plays a part in any battle, doesn't it? Rather than luck though, I strongly believe in abilities, preparations, and enhancing the probabilities of success in our favor instead.

Even with similar odds of hitting the target, due to the lack of expertise, the same simple slingshot in the hands of a novice, would not have yielded successful results, would it? For David though, the many years of hard work and practice improved his marksmanship and abilities, and better prepared him in maximizing even that slightest probability of success in his favor.

Such is the case for the David in my story; David Paulison, the former United States Fire Administrator who has been leading the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since 2006. The Goliath of this story is neither Hurricane Gustav, nor is Hanna, or Ike, or Josephine, or any others lined up to hit our coasts. The Goliath of my story is the revival of FEMA that David has been successful in accomplishing since taking over after Mike Brown's less than graceful departure in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, three years ago.

Remember Hurricane Katrina and FEMA's not too stellar performance that prompted a Congressional investigation, resulting in the resignation of Mike Brown, FEMA's director back in 2005?

Hurricane Gustav hit the coast of Louisiana as a Category 2 storm two weeks ago. Maybe it is not fair to compare Gustav with Katrina, which was a stronger storm with a direct hit on a major metropolitan area. But then I am not focusing on the individual storms; my focus is on FEMA's preparedness this time around. The difference between now and three years ago, is the degree of poise and preparedness that has been depicted in FEMA's performance this time around.

Call it luck that Hurricane Gustav wasn't a direct hit. Yes indeed, as I mentioned before, luck plays a part in all battles. But then you don't leave everything to luck, do you? What makes the difference between triumph and failure is the degree of preparedness?

Take a look at the orderly evacuation of two million people, and then tell me that it was luck and not preparedness. Take a look at the command and control, on where and how well FEMA staged, took command, and coordinated the complex federal and local state governments' response to this disaster. Take a look at how well the local government's decision to deploy the national guards, provided for the order and the security of the cities. Take a look at the support efforts in mobilization, staging, logistics, and the supply of the much needed resources.

Long story short, just take a global look, and then decide how you would evaluate the incident commander's Herculean efforts in response to this particular natural disaster. If you call it sheer luck, then Hanna, Ike, Josephine and the others in this year's hurricane season could better prove FEMA's revival and preparedness.

In an article titled "Paulison Works to Change FEMA's Image" posted on the Firehouse.com, Paulison's confidence in his organization's preparedness to respond to the upcoming challenges is quite evident.

"Paulison is banking on the fact that changes he's made at FEMA, and lessons learned from Katrina's mistakes, will help begin restoring the agency's reputation. After offering reporters a list of steps taken to prepare the storm's pounding, Paulison said he believes FEMA has done its job this time. "I told you before, that we were going to be ready for this storm," he said. "I think we are showing that we are ready for this storm. I can't stop the damage from happening, and we can't stop the storm from coming in. What we can do is be as ready as possible, making sure we're ready, the states are ready, and the local communities are ready."

I think that David has accomplished his goal and has defeated Goliath. FEMA is now better prepared in responding to such natural disasters of significant magnitude.

David is not receiving the accolades that he well deserves from the national media. But as we all know, the news media's focus is more on the failures rather than successes. And I am sure that David much prefers to be out of the limelight, rather than to receive the same amount of attention that Mike Brown did. Great job David for your triumphal efforts in reviving the FEMA, and enabling it to perform the responsibilities demanded of it by our public.

David has proved that strong leadership can indeed transform organizational failure into success. David has revived FEMA. Now, I am sure that similar intense focus and determination could also yield positive results in addressing our country's fire problem. This is yet another Herculean task which is the direct responsibility of the USFA, and thus FEMA.

What brought about the change in FEMA was the Congressional investigation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that resulted in 1,836 deaths and $81.2 billion damage. But my friends, every single year in America, fire fatalities are more than twice the number of Katrina's fatalities, and the total national cost of fire is more than three times that of Katrina's damage! Yes, that is every single year.

Yet, you don't see any Congressional investigation, do you? Why? Because Katrina was a single large disaster with significant economic impact; yet nationally we have 1.6 million fires every year, most of which don't even make the local news.

Our public does not know the true magnitude of the fire problem in our country. As a result, to most of our politicians and the decision makers, "the trees are blocking their view of the forest", and they view fire as a small local issue, and not national.

The National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) report title "The Total Cost of Fire in United States", published on February 2008, indicates that "for 2005, the total cost is estimated at $267-294 billion, or roughly 2 to 2 1/2 % of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP)."

During the next couple of months before this year's presidential election, we all will repeatedly hear about the cost of war in Iraq being $10 billion a month. But most people do not know, that based on the NFPA's fire statistic mentioned above, our current total annual cost of fire is about $24.5 billion a month. That is more than twice the monthly cost of the war in Iraq! Isn't it our patriotic duty to address this problem that is a burden to our national economy?

Do most Americans realize this? No, but it is up to us to provide them that information. Through our public education efforts we must inform our public about the total cost of fire in our country. I truly believe, that if the public and their representatives on Capitol Hill were aware of the real magnitude of our country's fire cost year after year, they would pay a lot closer attention to address the fire problem in our country.

We in the fire service realize the importance of our mission in reducing the fire fatalities and the life-scarring fire injuries in our communities. But, we must also recognize our professional obligation and patriotic duty to acknowledge our responsibility in decreasing our country's total fire cost.

As mentioned in my previous article titled "Aim Higher", the leadership role of USFA is instrumental in addressing the fire problem in our country. And that leadership role was established more than 35 years ago by the 1973 America Burning Report.

In that article I suggested a Congressional "review" of the USFA. After all, it was the Congressional investigation that helped revive FEMA in the aftermath of their failures three years ago, wasn't it? So why wouldn't a "review", similarly help revive the USFA?

"Let's get the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), or the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to do an independent evaluation of our efforts in implementation of the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974", Public Law 93-498 (PL 93-498). No I am not talking about an "Audit", or "Investigation". I am merely talking about an independent "Review".... Such an independent "Review" can be extremely beneficial in helping an agency better accomplish its mission. Although "Reviews" by their very nature must look back over time, but their outcomes are essentially future-focused.... We must strengthen the USFA, if we are indeed serious about addressing the fire problem in our country. Our professional obligation and our patriotic duty, demand that we acknowledge the true magnitude of the total cost of fire in our country. We need to provide our national Incident Commander with adequate resources to accomplish the tasks. If we are indeed serious about addressing the fire problem, then we can't afford being complacent and settle for the current insufficient funding levels for the USFA."

FEMA's David Paulsion and USFA's Greg Cade have both done an admirable job during their time at the helm of their respective organizations. But the work is not done yet. USFA must be revived, just as FEMA's revival has successfully been accomplished.

With the new President and his administration taking command this January, we need to find great new leaders to fill the void, and to provide for the continuity of the work that David and Greg have initiated. I strongly believe that an independent "review" could only help those future leaders.

In his excellent article titled "Warning Labels", my friend Robert Rielage quoted from the speech that the secretary of defense, Robert Gates made to the students of the Air War College.

"In it, the secretary called for a different type of military officer. 'The Armed Forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders who want to do something, not be somebody,' Gates said."

In the not too distant past, both FEMA and USFA have experienced serving under disappointing leaders such as FEMA's Mike Brown, or USFA's Carrye Brown. I can only hope that the next President would appoint qualified leaders that "want to do something, not be somebody". Leaders that could step up to the plate and serve their nation, just as David did in battling Goliath.

Related Links

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.