"TWO STEPS FORWARD, THREE STEPS BACK"

BY BILL MANNING

President Bush lauded firefighters in his State of the Union Address a couple of months ago, but we returned his applause too soon. The Administration plans to zero-fund the Fire Act for 2003, under the pretense that local fire departments will be taken care of in the newly proposed $30 billion disaster response bill. We must thank Mr. Bush for another display of words over substance. After the feds, states, emergency managers, and police siphon the life out of the federal disaster response monies—their forte*—local fire departments will be like Oliver Twist begging the headmaster for a few more crumbs, with no grant monies in the kitchen.

Bureaucratic ineptitude was unclothed at the House Committee on Science hearing last month regarding the bungled World Trade Center collapse investigation. It was almost entertaining at times: When one congressman asked the point-blank question, “Whoever is in charge of this investigation, will you please raise your hand?” three hands went up.

Committee on Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert continually struck the gentle, grandfatherly pose in assuring the bureaucrats testifying that the committee was not there to attach blame. But Mr. Boehlert, we will: The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ so-called “investigation” team leaders, New York City’s Department of Design and Construction, and the Port Authority of New York-New Jersey are con artists playing a shell game that dishonors the memory of 3,000 people murdered at the World Trade Center.

For FEMA to treat the world’s largest manmade disaster as though it were responding to a flood defies rational thought.

For the ASCE to insist that it engaged in a vigorous evidence collection campaign from the start is disingenuous.

For the NYC Department of Design and Construction to say that it did not authorize (at whose bidding, we ask?) the hasty removal and destruction of evidence is a lie.

And as for the Port Authority, which built and owns the World Trade Center property? It refused to turn over building blueprints and other documents for investigation until back-door congressional legislation capped its financial liability in WTC collapse litigation and until FEMA agreed not to disclose any information about contents of the documents to the public. This speaks volumes about what’s really at stake here.

The Port Authority is suspect on several fronts, but none more so than for its engineering and fire protection practices. How can you trust an agency that operates outside local or national codes and, for example, installs a 6,000-gallon diesel tank on the ground floor of World Trade Center Tower 7, directly under a long-span transfer beam? That’s not in any code book. We venture a guess here that combustible liquid pool fires inside buildings probably are not in the best interests of public safety.

It’s high time that Congress demand of every governmental agency—federal, state, or whatever—to construct and maintain its buildings to the strictest level of building and fire codes. It’s high time to breathe air into the governmental accountability vacuum that compromises public safety.

Lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s remember that the fire service and fire service organizations in general have not assumed responsibility for or even taken an interest in pursuing a big-tent federal commission to investigate the WTC and provide the apparatus for an intensive investigation should it become necessary in the future. The ignorant statement “We know what happened: The planes hit the buildings and the buildings came down” has been uttered all too frequently in and about the fire service. One group says it’s too consumed with firefighter safety issues to be involved in the push for a full-scale WTC investigation. If the deaths of 343 firefighters in high-rise collapses do not represent a huge health and safety issue, what does?

In a big slap to 16,000 of its firefighter members and beyond, the National Fire Protection Association has booked former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard “Arrest the Firefighters” Kerik as the keynote speaker at the association’s annual meeting in May, for a fee of $25,000. FDNY was not invited to speak. FDNY Deputy Chief Charles R. Blaich, who spent countless hours at Ground Zero in a management capacity, had this to say to the NFPA in response:

“Let us not forget that it was his administration that prohibited NYPD helicopters from communicating with the FDNY, even as the towers displayed signs of collapse that the [fire] chiefs operating within the buildings could not see.

“It was Kerik’s policies which prohibited the NYPD from participating in the Incident Command System. Once again, no NYPD radios or leaders at the lobby command posts….

“Under his leadership, the NYPD was unable to secure the WTC site and had that task taken from it and given to the Department of Design and Construction, a small group of park service personnel and various trades that usually build restrooms in parks or repairs roofs (poorly) on firehouses.

“I never saw him at the site except for photo ops, and [for] his one panic call to his commanders that the Millennium Hotel was collapsing. It never did, nor was it ever going to, but he delayed rescue operations further by causing a site evacuation.

“He has recently been found guilty of ethics violations concerning his use of NYPD assets to research his book. He is now under investigation for using NYPD assets to investigate private matters for his publisher.

“What a great example of leadership and integrity!”

On a positive note, applause to the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department for remembering the lessons learned the tragic way. The potential for another Worcester was upon us: a fire set by a vagrant that had made considerable headway in a large, abandoned brick cold-storage warehouse with numerous cork-lined vaults. Firefighters entered to attack the fire. The vagrant was discovered, and it was determined that there was no other life in the building—except for the firefighters. The heads-up incident commander, based on reports from inside the building and judging the extent of the fire, practiced the “risk little to save little” axiom and wisely pulled all members out of the building, thereby averting catastrophe.

Once again, we call on city management across the country to eradicate from our communities these death traps that take their cruel toll on American firefighters. Thankfully, it didn’t happen this time.

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