Flashbacks and Other Interesting Events: Fire – Then and Now

What an interesting week we have just witnessed in the world of fire in America. First we saw the impact of fire on the City of Detroit, Michigan. A serious windstorm struck that ailing industrial city. The wind downed a large number of wires and fires...


It was at this point that the parallels with Detroit started to come into my mind-s eye. Our department lost a number of people to retirements who were never replaced. Stations were shuttered and companies taken out of service. Toward the end of my career, our department had dropped to a level of around 700 officers and firefighters. Frankly gang, it just got tougher to get the job done.
 
My research indicates that Detroit has had to make some serious cuts in the fire department budget. Budget cuts always equal staff cuts. According to local union officials, the department is down at least 200 firefighters. As a result, from eight to ten fire companies are being shut down every day. At the height of the blazes, many local residents stated that they could not get through to the 911 call center to report fires. Other citizens indicated that they had to wait for long periods of time before even a single engine would arrive. 
 
What was true back in the 1970's is equally true today. It is people who provide the services in their fire departments. The equation is simple: Fewer people is equal to a lesser capability to deliver fire and emergency medical services. In their search to please the bean-counters in city hall, many modern management mavens manage to micromanage their departments into a certain mind-numbing state of submission. 
 
In the days since I did the initial thinking and writing about Detroit today and my experiences in the days of yesteryear, a number of other major fires occurred across our nation. The first series of incidents was a number of brush fires which occurred on Staten Island in New York City. A review of the media outlets in New York City indicates that one of these rose to a six-alarm commitment of forces, while another rose to the five-alarm level. Added by dry and windy conditions, these fires burned for many hours. 
 
While this situation was ongoing in New York City, our associates in Colorado were battling yet another major wildfire incident. A 6200-acre blaze destroyed 135 homes near Boulder, Colorado. A combination of ground and air resources battled this incident. It is interesting to note that I saw helicopters doing water drops on the Staten Island fires too. 
 
As bad as all of these incidents were, the most startling incident was the deadly explosion and fire which destroyed a neighborhood in San Bruno, California and killed four of its citizens. I spent a great deal of time following this disaster on the Internet and on the Fox News network. This was an unexpected incident which few places are prepared to handle and most never expect to occur. 
 
It should be noted that there were a number of serious problems which firefighters were forced to face as they arrived on location. Thanks to a release form the Secret List, I knew early on that firefighters had lost the use of their municipal water supply system in the blast area. I later read where the first0due Fire Captain indicated that he had a whole neighborhood on fire. As one who had experienced this in the past, I truly felt his pain and frustration.
 
While studying the media coverage on this incident, I began to uncover bits and pieces of the operation which indicated to me that there was a system in place to handle large-scale incidents and that the system worked. This should be no secret to anyone who has followed the development of the California emergency operations system through the years. 
 
While listening to the Lt. Governor of California describe the operations over the course of the emergency, I could see it all developing according to the tenets of a proper emergency management system. He spoke of local resources being deployed. These were then followed up by mutual aid from the region, and then a deployment of resources from the statewide system. He spoke of strike forces, water tenders and aerial tankers. As I watched TV I could see the various components of full-scale emergency response deployed around the area where the reporters were filing their stories. 
 
Let me also suggest that the emergency management system which supports fire operations like this also functioned well. A local declaration of emergency was made early on in the operation. This was quickly followed by a state emergency declaration. A request was made to FEMA for assistance and it was quickly granted by Craig Fugate the FEMA Administrator and his agency. Here we see a successful response to a tragedy.