The “Rip Van Winkle Syndrome,” One Year Later

Everybody knows the children's story of Rip Van Winkle. Set in the time of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, Rip Van Winkle is the story of a man who, upon walking in the mountains with his dog, stumbles upon a strange man with a keg of liquor and a small company of odd-looking folk playing a bowling game. He drinks the strange potion and when he wakes up the next morning, which actually has been 20 years, he finds everything he used to know has changed.

I wonder if someone were to go to sleep on Sept. 11, 2001, and awaken one year later, would they have found the fire service different? Would we be better prepared to respond to the catastrophic events of Sept. 11 if they occurred one year later? Would we have learned any lessons? I have posed this question to many in the fire service over the last month during my five-city whirlwind travels, and to no surprise many feel we are still not prepared. Many even added that little has changed to prevent such an event.

If an engine company were to pull up to a chemical attack today, have our personnel been trained? Do our personnel have the resources to protect themselves and mitigate the incident? How many EMS personnel even have personal protective equipment (PPE) or breathing apparatus for a quick escape? Or will our personnel be canaries?

As congressional hearings continue on everything from security leaks to how to administer a vaccine for smallpox, one must wonder what will lead the initiative and move us forward. Did we have congressional hearings for one year after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? Or did the West Coast prepare to repel an imminent invasion?

I can hear the detractors now! But Gary, this takes time and things are not going to change overnight. I guess I could buy that, except that when the House and Senate passed the Corporate and Auditing Accountability Act in record time recently and sent it to the President's desk for his signature, where does it leave the fire service when it comes to priorities with Congress? Thankfully, our military has taken the fight to the terrorists' backyard and has shown them what happens when a sleeping tiger is awakened.

To the U.S. Fire Administration's credit, it has moved swiftly to distribute funding under the Assistance for Firefighters Grant Award program, even though none of the funding provided for the USFA's administrative handling of the grant. Its hands will be full again next year as the final $900 million has been appropriated by a Senate Committee for distribution to fire departments. As of this writing, the bill must go to the full Senate and then needs to be considered by the House.

Still on the table is President Bush's proposed $3.5 billion in next year's federal budget for first responders. How quickly will that be approved and to whom will the money go? Word on the street is that all kinds of agencies are already positioning themselves for a piece of the $3.5 billion pie, even though they have nothing to do with first response.

As it stands now, about $2.1 billion would go to cities and counties with populations over 50,000 for their efforts to fight terrorism. An additional $900 million would be distributed to smaller local governments, and $500 million would be distributed by governors for regional cooperation.

Hopefully this time, millions of dollars won't go to National Guard units to set up bioterrorism teams. One of the biggest boondoggles I saw in recent years was the appropriation of millions of dollars to National Guard units in each state to set up teams capable of responding to a bioterrorism incident. When you call 911, you don't get the National Guard; you get a local police officer, a local firefighter or a local EMS person.

Various professional fire organizations have called for 75,000 more firefighters to be added immediately to the ranks of fire organizations nationwide. By all indications, this has fallen on deaf ears. Ironically, after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, federal funding provided for 100,000 more police officers to be added to the streets.

Fire and EMS agencies cannot do it alone. The role of fire and EMS agencies as first responders demands that they be adequately equipped and trained to effectively handle whatever situation they are confronted with. To that end, federal assistance must play a crucial role.

Some of things which first responders need include certified chem/bio masks, given to all fire departments in major cities, including all departments within a 25-mile radius; expand and fund the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) program; increase the number of Metropolitan Medical Response System (MMRS) teams and enhance their capability to respond and deal with major incidents; and increase funding for counterterrorism programs that are directed specifically to fire and EMS agencies.

It is no longer a question of "if" another terrorist attack will occur, but a question of "when" it will occur. Unfortunately, if Rip Van Winkle were a modern story, I am afraid if he were to go to sleep last Sept. 11, he would find that not much has changed one year later.

Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, serves as the director of emergency services for Jefferson County, MO. He retired as chief paramedic from the St. Louis Fire Department after serving the City of St. Louis for 24 years. Ludwig has trained and lectured internationally and nationally on fire and EMS topics. He also operates The Ludwig Group, a professional consulting firm. He can be reached at 636-789-5660 or via