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In a departure from our normal Close Calls format, we want to provide some thoughts on the Hurricane Katrina situation from a fire standpoint, as it in many respects relates directly to what we do cover here each month.
This is being written on Sept. 8, 2005, as the fourth anniversary of 9/11 approached; loads of feelings in every firefighter's heart and mind. Plenty is being said about the response by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to Katrina. From my perspective, with the exception of the urban search and rescue (USAR) and related teams (read: specially trained firefighters), it looks like the local and state plans and all the federal "stuff" we were all told to learn, follow, train on, etc., did not work well or was just forgotten.
Maybe that impression will be changed by the time you read this. But when we hear federal officials (elected as well as employees) claiming "we have plenty of time to determine what may have gone wrong," it scares us and further confirms their lack of understanding. The next "emergency" won't wait. Firefighters know that. Bureaucrats do not and often do not want to.
And let"s not forget the clear responsibility of city hall, any city hall. Without the slightest question, the local bottom line, be it in the Gulf communities or in any city or town in America, are the folks elected and appointed to ensure the citizens are protected. So many budget-cutting city hall bureaucrats (mayors, city managers, budget directors and others) forget that the primary purpose of government is to protect and serve the citizens. And so many of the above-named folks "act" like they do until there is a problem, and then they scurry and look to point blame at anyone but themselves.
When the DHS boss (joined in harmony by local politicians) nervously stated publicly that "we were hit by a double whammy, the storm and then the levee breaking," we as firefighters were amazed at their lack of emergency response and preparedness understanding, knowledge and compassion. The breaking of the levees (not to mention all the other horrible damage) had been predicted by experts for years. Double whammy? That's like your fire department arriving on the scene of a house fire and finding the house full of smoke and on fire and with people trapped and with manpower problems and with civilians running over hoselines and having to vent and with partial collapse and other fire calls coming in at the same time. "And" happens and it's predictable!
While we continue to pray for all people affected, our deepest thoughts and prayers go out to the heroic Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi firefighters and EMTs and their families. Put yourself in their position. Nearly every member of the affected departments lost everything, but like us they just wanted to do their job, and they did, to the best of their abilities; after all, they were victims too. No doubt by the time you read this, we will have learned of more deeply tragic events affecting the firefighters in the South. We hope their losses are minimal. These good folks were beside themselves at the time of this writing and trying to do whatever they could to figure out "life," but they still stuck in there and did their jobs. No surprise to those who understand firefighters.
At the federal level, the opinion is that the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), which falls under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which in turn is part of DHS, is the "crazy uncle in the basement," an uncle that DHS would rather forget, as proven by past actions that spoke louder than their words. If they really want the federal emergency service response problem fixed, the solution is to go to the people who have experience in really dealing with emergencies, those who go to emergencies every day and are in the "real world" of terrible things happening to people, firefighters. Check the basement.