Were They Prepared?

Oct. 1, 2005

In a departure from our normal Close Calls format, we want to provide some thoughts on the Hurricane Katrina situation from a fire standpoint, as it in many respects relates directly to what we do cover here each month.

This is being written on Sept. 8, 2005, as the fourth anniversary of 9/11 approached; loads of feelings in every firefighter's heart and mind. Plenty is being said about the response by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to Katrina. From my perspective, with the exception of the urban search and rescue (USAR) and related teams (read: specially trained firefighters), it looks like the local and state plans and all the federal "stuff" we were all told to learn, follow, train on, etc., did not work well or was just forgotten.

Maybe that impression will be changed by the time you read this. But when we hear federal officials (elected as well as employees) claiming "we have plenty of time to determine what may have gone wrong," it scares us and further confirms their lack of understanding. The next "emergency" won't wait. Firefighters know that. Bureaucrats do not and often do not want to.

And let"s not forget the clear responsibility of city hall, any city hall. Without the slightest question, the local bottom line, be it in the Gulf communities or in any city or town in America, are the folks elected and appointed to ensure the citizens are protected. So many budget-cutting city hall bureaucrats (mayors, city managers, budget directors and others) forget that the primary purpose of government is to protect and serve the citizens. And so many of the above-named folks "act" like they do until there is a problem, and then they scurry and look to point blame at anyone but themselves.

When the DHS boss (joined in harmony by local politicians) nervously stated publicly that "we were hit by a double whammy, the storm and then the levee breaking," we as firefighters were amazed at their lack of emergency response and preparedness understanding, knowledge and compassion. The breaking of the levees (not to mention all the other horrible damage) had been predicted by experts for years. Double whammy? That's like your fire department arriving on the scene of a house fire and finding the house full of smoke and on fire and with people trapped and with manpower problems and with civilians running over hoselines and having to vent and with partial collapse and other fire calls coming in at the same time. "And" happens and it's predictable!

While we continue to pray for all people affected, our deepest thoughts and prayers go out to the heroic Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi firefighters and EMTs and their families. Put yourself in their position. Nearly every member of the affected departments lost everything, but like us they just wanted to do their job, and they did, to the best of their abilities; after all, they were victims too. No doubt by the time you read this, we will have learned of more deeply tragic events affecting the firefighters in the South. We hope their losses are minimal. These good folks were beside themselves at the time of this writing and trying to do whatever they could to figure out "life," but they still stuck in there and did their jobs. No surprise to those who understand firefighters.

At the federal level, the opinion is that the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), which falls under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which in turn is part of DHS, is the "crazy uncle in the basement," an uncle that DHS would rather forget, as proven by past actions that spoke louder than their words. If they really want the federal emergency service response problem fixed, the solution is to go to the people who have experience in really dealing with emergencies, those who go to emergencies every day and are in the "real world" of terrible things happening to people, firefighters. Check the basement.

You cannot successfully lead an emergency agency unless you have training and experience, loads of "built-up-over-time" experience, in handling emergencies. No group is more qualified than firefighters. It,s time to put fire people back in "real" charge at the federal level.

It's All About "We"

As hinted above, the first place anyone should look to prepare and plan is locally. But I am not talking about the Gulf states right now. Instead, this is a time to look at how effective each of our fire departments is in working with other area departments. Are you responding regularly with neighboring mutual aid fire departments? If so, are you doing training and drilling with them regularly? If not, it's time to do so.

How fast and calmly can your area get 100 engines and 500 firefighters from your area, county or state going in one direction? Are they able to talk on the same radio channels? Forget repeaters; can they talk radio to radio? Or can you bring self-generating repeaters with you? Do the firefighters all follow and understand the same standard operating procedures (SOPs)? How quickly can your area get 50 rescue boats with qualified personnel? How about ambulances? Are all area fire departments using the same exact personnel accountability system? What is the disaster plan? Is it easy to follow, understand and execute? Where is it stored?

We all know the drill.

How well trained are your emergency management people? What are the roles between your fire department and the local and state emergency management agencies? If it's great, keep it going. If not, it's time to fix it. Maybe you don't live in an area that is prone to hurricanes, but odds are you are "prone" to fires, mass-casualty events and related "not everyday" emergencies. Could your fire department handle an emergency with a couple of hundred victims?

When you look at the big picture, to me at least, this has a lot less to do with things such as "federal funding" and related stuff like that and much more about relationships, attitudes and focus. Ever seen fire apparatus pass several other firehouses because those two "other" chiefs like (or don't like) each other? Personality-based mutual aid is alive and well in some areas, but thankfully most areas are starting to get it and fix the problem for the good of the firefighters, and the public.

Mutual aid has been around forever, but it means different things to different people. Some areas have mutual aid, which is when the incident commander calls for help once it is determined that help is needed. Some areas have "automatic" mutual aid, where responses are pre-planned to ensure plenty of the correct resources arrive quickly. Both work well as long as there is a plan, standardization, training and leadership to go along with it.

National Mutual Aid?

I can't seem to get this question off my mind: Is it time for a national fire mutual aid system? This would be a new system led and coordinated by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) in full cooperation with the national fire service organizations. This isn't new. This has been discussed for decades in the fire service, and the need has been proven more and more.

Honestly, I think it is time for a national fire mutual aid system, and the feds can support it and assist. That is what the government is supposed to do. Maybe an expanded version of existing "state" or regional fire mutual aid systems is the answer.

Many areas of the U.S. have very successful, well-oiled, tested and non-bureaucratic yet formal mutual aid systems. They are working in such places as Florida, California, New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, the Washington, DC, area's COG System and so many others. And the fact that many of these working systems do exist solves half the problem, because they would all fit in almost perfectly. But there are some areas of the U.S. that have no effective and organized mutual aid systems and they would have several "models" to choose from.

One excellent medium-size operation is the Southwestern New Hampshire District Fire Mutual Aid System. Well over 100 fire-rescue departments in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont are working cooperatively, because they "want" to, and have been since 1953!

Among the most successful larger, non-big-government fire mutual aid systems in the nation is the Illinois area,s MABAS, which stands for Mutual Aid Box Alarm System. I have followed MABAS for years and am a big fan of what it can do and has done. MABAS is a mutual aid organization that has been in existence since the late 1960s. Heavily rooted throughout Illinois, MABAS includes over 900 member fire departments organized within 57 divisions. The divisions geographically span an area from Lake Michigan to west of Rockford and south through Champaign-Urbana, Douglas County, St. Clair County and St. Louis, MO. Seven Wisconsin divisions and one Indiana division also share MABAS with their Illinois counterparts. How about that. It works beyond state lines and is local, not federal, and is made up of volunteer fire departments and career fire departments working hand in hand.

And how about this: MABAS includes over 35,000 firefighters and emergency responders with units including more than 1,200 fire stations, 1,400 engine companies, 700 ladder trucks, 875 ambulances (mostly paramedic capable), 350 heavy rescue squads (with 23 of them being technical rescue teams, with 16 in development), 125 light rescue squads and 600 water tankers. Fire-EMS reserve (backup) units account for more than 600 additional emergency vehicles. MABAS also has 34 Level A response-ready hazmat teams and eight more in development.

I think there is a lot to be learned from MABAS and the other coordinated, organized "by firefighters for firefighters" mutual aid systems, if only from a firefighter safety, survival and "close call" risk-management standpoint.

A national fire mutual aid system? Join Firehouse Contributing Editor William Goldfeder; Chief Bill Killen, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), Chief Jay Reardon, president of the MABAS; and IAFC Executive Director Garry Briese in their candid discussion on Firehouse Radio's "Through The Smoke" presentation at www.firehouse.com/mutualaid.

William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at [email protected].

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