From left; Phoenix firefighter recruit Rory Costello, Capt. Tom Henry, Capt. Gilbert Cardenas and recruit Todd Yonker hoist rescue baskets atop a pallet of rescue supplies in this Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005, file photo at the Phoenix Firefighter Training Academy in Phoenix, prior to leaving for New Orleans. Phoenix Fire department, which sent their search and rescue team to assist in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, has had it's search and rescue teams suspended from operations by FEMA becasue it sent armed police officers to protect the firefighters during their deployement to the Gulf Coast. At issue is a rule in FEMA's Code of Conduct that prohibits Urban Search and Rescue teams from having firearms.
Photo credit: Matt York
PHOENIX (AP) -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency is defending its suspension of a search and rescue team from the Phoenix Fire Department, saying the team knowingly violated rules that bar guns.
FEMA officials sent the 28-person Phoenix team home on Sept. 26 after members were seen getting on a helicopter with a loaded shotgun while working on Hurricane Rita relief efforts.
FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney said Phoenix was the only one of 28 teams that was sent home.
The team was pulled ''after a series of judgment errors by team leaders which violated FEMA rules and which put that team, other teams, and the victims they were rescuing at unnecessary risk,'' Kinerney said in a written statement.
Four other teams were on standby when the Phoenix team was deactivated, so no victims were put at risk, Kinerney wrote.
The Phoenix team had deployed with four armed police officers who had been deputized as U.S. marshals.
The pullout ignited a firestorm Tuesday, with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon calling the FEMA reaction ''stunning, unbelievable, bewildering and outrageous.''
The criticism of the federal agency continued Wednesday, with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl both taking on the issue.
Napolitano criticized FEMA's actions as unfathomable when asked about the situation during a news conference Wednesday.
''I don't understand the reason for it. I think our first responders need to be operating in a safe and secure area so they can focus on their work,'' Napolitano said. ''This is just one of those dumb bureaucratic decisions that FEMA is notorious for.''
Kyl issued a statement saying the safety of rescue teams must be the first priority and if there are problems with outdated FEMA rules they need to be changed.
Assistant Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan was conciliatory Wednesday and seemed to be taking some of the blame.
''No one wants heads to roll over this thing,'' Kahn said. ''We were on the edge and they called us on it. Could it have been managed better on both ends? Yes.''
He said the fire department is determined to keep security with its units and was having discussions with FEMA on Wednesday. He said he believed the model of pairing security forces with rescue teams will eventually be accepted by FEMA.
The sticking point, he said, was what many thought was an overreaction by FEMA to the armed officers. He said FEMA officials had been told about them and told them to keep a low profile.