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One area of special concern is the state of hazardous materials response teams. Most departments of any size now have hazmat units, but very few local governments have provided the kind of money that’s needed for training and equipment. The ugly truth is that many of these teams have been operating on shoe-string budgets. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, some jurisdictions have come up with additional hazmat funds, but much more is needed.
There also are rumblings that the bill to provide $7 billion in federal funds to hire 75,000 firefighters may not be as dead as it seemed at the end of last year. It’s still buried in committee, but there is a serious effort underway to bring it back to life. Members of Congress are becoming aware of the danger posed by under-staffed fire departments. All of the federal aid will be wasted if there aren’t enough firefighters on the engine and truck companies that respond to an act of terrorism.
The FDNY’s official death toll for the World Trade Center is 343, but everyone should know that a 344th firefighter died in the line of duty that day. He is Patrolman Keith Roma of the New York Fire Insurance Patrol, assigned to Fire Patrol Company 2, which responded on the first alarm and was assisting in rescue operations in the north tower when it collapsed.
Starting in the 19th century, 23 cities once had fire patrols sponsored by the insurance underwriters. Sadly, all but three New York companies were disbanded in the late 1950s. The patrols had their own firehouses and apparatus and could be distinguished by the red helmets they wore as they spread salvage covers and saved valuable property at working fires. The patrolmen earned the respect of firefighters they served with and often assisted in making rescues. They also were injured and lost their lives in backdrafts, flashovers and building collapses – the same as any fireman.
Keith Roma is the 32nd New York fire patrolman to die in the line of duty. He will be honored next October at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, along with the 343 FDNY members and about 100 other firefighters who made the supreme sacrifice last year.
Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.