San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman opened the Firehouse World Exposition and Conference Wednesday with a warm welcome and a riveting account of how San Diego has handled the aftermath of the 2003 fire storm.
He showed a satellite image of the region ablaze and said, "If they can see your incident from space, it's usually a bad thing."
The incident was California's largest brush fire ever and destroyed 335 structures in the city of San Diego alone. Afterward, over $2 million were donated to purchase additional firefighting equipment.
Bowman lamented that the public doesn't like to prepare until after disaster strikes.
"I don't think anyone outside the fire service could imagine something of this magnitude," he said. "They don't comprehend the potential until it happens."
He recommmends that fire departments put a foundation together now to handle donations, because when a major incident occurs they need to have it already in place
He also spoke of the media issues his department faced. He advised fire officials to assemble a PIO team to deal with the media onslaught, and said a Joint Information Center is essential. He also warned that among local politicians and the media, "Finger pointing was the norm."
Bowman said his department has pushed for numerous advances since the 2003 incident, including a brush management proposal and an increase of defensible space around structures. He is proposing a regional or even statewide approach.
He also spoke of roofing and other code revisions underway. Unfortunately, he said, many of the residents who opposed the code revisions are the very ones who lost their homes, and who worry about the rebuilding costs. "The very people we're trying to help said, 'Don't do it,'" Bowman said. "I'm doing it anyway."
Bowman listed the new equipment the department has acquired, including 15 new apparatus, a full time fire rescue helicopter and technology improvements he plans to implement by the start of the next fire season, to create what he calls the "Command Post of the Future."
"We need to get to where we think we need to be. Not where city managers and state governments think we need to be," the chief said. "Be vocal about it and tell them why you can't protect them. Until you start doing it, our voices go unheard."
Other highlights of the opening ceremonies included the awarding of the CSFA Training Officer of the Year award to Division Chief Stewart Roth of the City of Monterey Fire Department, for his preparatory courses for promotional testing.
In addition, firefighters gave a standing ovation to Cathy Rucker, widow of fallen Novato firefighter Steve Rucker, for her emotional and uplifting account of how her family has fared since line of duty death.
She also spoke about estate planning. "Make sure you have enough life insurance," she said. She was thankful that her husband did, she said, because when he died it meant the world to her that the family could keep their house. She also reminded firefighters to update their recorded beneficiaries if there have been any changes in the status of spouses or addition of children.
Rucker also suggested that firefighters and their spouses set up a living trust in case somehting happens to both of them. She said she gets great peace of mind by having arrangements - that they both agreed on - alreay in place for their children.
Rucker said her family's estate planning also made it possible for her to leave her job as a chemist in order to spend more time with their children, Kirsten, 8 and Wesley, 3. She is now able to be a "stay at home, run around mom," she said, as well as take fire science courses, which she says she finds theraputic.
When speaking of her husband, she said Steve loved radio controlled cars, things that are fast, scuba diving and rapelling. "He was an exciting guy," she said. "Looking back, at least I know that he enjoyed his life to the fullest, and that's what I intend to do."