Akron, Ohio Firefighters Ready to Help Katrina Victims

Eight Akron firefighters who flew to Atlanta on Monday to help hurricane victims still were waiting for an assignment Wednesday morning, said Phil Gauer, one of the eight and president of the local firefighters' union.

The Akron crew members represent a variety of skills, including paramedic training, diving, hazardous materials and trench collapse rescue, but their main value to the Federal Emergency Management Agency is that they have already passed criminal background checks.

FEMA, through the U.S. Fire Administration, called last week for 1,000 two-man teams from city fire departments around the country to help storm victims fill out paperwork for government assistance. Those jobs usually go to private citizens, but FEMA wanted to speed the process.

Gauer and the Akron crew arrived in Atlanta on Monday morning and were ready to deploy Tuesday afternoon after eight hours of training, paperwork, hepatitis shots and other preparations. He and the others have committed to helping for at least 30 days.

''We actually haven't done any of it yet, but it looks like we'll be sent out today,'' Gauer said Wednesday morning.

They thought they would be sent to North Carolina -- half to Raleigh and half to Charlotte to help relocated storm victims. Instead, all eight stayed together and by afternoon, were at least driving in the direction of the hurricane damage.

''We're down in Montgomery, Alabama,'' Gauer said around 3:30 p.m. ''That's how fast things change.''

According to the Associated Press, hundreds of firefighters have been waiting for days to be sent and were frustrated that their skills were being used for community relations.

FEMA officials have said they're processing volunteers as quickly as possible.

The U.S. Fire Administration, which is overseen by FEMA, has posted a follow-up explanation, responding to complaints that firefighters' skills aren't being put to good use.

''First and foremost, this is not a part of the National Response Plan, the Urban Search and Rescue Program, Emergency Management Assistance Compact or Mutual Aid,'' the Fire Administration said.

''We desperately needed 2,000 people who could be hired as federal employees and deployed quickly. These people will not be performing firefighter duties. They will become temporary FEMA Community Relations personnel, doing a job we do in every disaster.''

More than 4,000 firefighters have responded so far, according to the Fire Administration, and its call center suspended processing new applications Tuesday.

''Firemen being firemen, we're going to do whatever it takes to help people,'' Gauer said.

Distributed by the Associated Press

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