US&R team issues appear to conflict

US&R team issues appear to conflict

Steven P. Woodworth

Squad 4

City of Atlanta (GA) Fire Department

I was somewhat confused after reading “US&R Task Forces and Pork-Barrel Politics” (Fire Commentary, Chase N. Sargent, March 1997). I realize the author is well-respected within the field of urban search and rescue. I am not a member of the US&R team, so perhaps I do not have all the facts. However, judging by the facts presented in the article, I feel the commentary shows several conflicting issues.

First, the author states that in 1990 he was among a group of 15 people who hunkered down to grade and evaluate the 34 applicants to determine who were to be the first 25 teams. My question is, Of the 15 people who hunkered down, how many are now members of teams that were graded highly vs. the number of members whose teams did not make the cut?

Second, How were these 15 people chosen? Were they selected on the basis of their vast experience in responding to earthquakes and building collapses? Obviously, there must have been some criteria.

Third, the author says that originally $800,000 had to be divided among 25 teams. That would be $32,000 per team, yet the author says the fund his jurisdiction had to match was $100,000. That`s one-eighth of the total $800,000. Surely, this could not be because of “Pork-Barrel Politics.” Was the author also part of the committee that determined who received the funds?

My last question is, Who decides what teams are operational? Obviously, if your team is deemed operational, you will receive funds when you respond to an incident. Teams not deemed operational will not receive funds. As I stated, I am not a member of a US&R team, but it seems to me that the trick is, one, to be involved in the selection process; two, to be involved in doling out funds; and, three, to be deemed operational.

Now that I have stated my problems with the author`s comments, I must also give the points with which I agree. I feel that the teams serve a definite purpose and should be completely funded. Localities should not have to match funds. I also believe that all teams should be operational before moving on to new teams. After reading the article, it appears that the pot is calling the kettle black …. I am just a firefighter working alongside firefighters. I do not know all the workings of a “superteam,” but I find it hard to believe that this is the first time politics has made its way into the US&R program. “Superteams,” you have to love `em!

Chase N. Sargent responds: I thank Steven Woodworth for taking the time to read and dissect the article. In fact, given the substance of his commentary, he has some very valid concerns I will try to address. To ensure that I answer all the questions fairly, I pulled all the old files on the evaluations, forms, rating system, committee makeup, and anything else still on file.

Most likely, I will not be able to answer all the questions satisfactorily, so I offer to provide any documentation he may want to review, including the original numerical rating forms, the original task force submissions for consideration, all current FEMA evaluations and operational criteria packages, and anything else that might help. That being said, bear with me while I answer the questions.

The original impetus for the task force process was driven by a meeting held in Seattle in 1990. FEMA invited personnel from across the country. I have no idea of how they came up with the list. I was not on the original list but managed to “weasel my way in” with a little help.

After the meeting, FEMA solicited task forces. Each task force had to complete a comprehensive application package (not as comprehensive as the one used today) and submit it for review. This package was designed to indicate the current capabilities the task force had in-house and how much enhancement would be needed to bring a task force on line. Once this was done, FEMA selected a technical review committee. Personnel selected were chosen for a variety of reasons–some for their experience in collapse response and some for specific expertise in certain areas such as medicine or engineering. Others were administrators and neutral parties. Most of the members selected were currently serving on various working groups established by FEMA during the 1990 Seattle meeting and who at that meeting had expressed an interest in assisting in the evaluation process. At the time, none of us knew what the criteria were to be or how the FEMA packages were to be submitted. FEMA made the ultimate decision on selection criteria. Each evaluator had to follow and conform to a list of guidelines and rules. The evaluation process was broken down into sections–Rescue, Medical, Communications, Technical, Command, Administration, and so on. Evaluators were assigned to evaluate only one section as the packages were processed. Chief Hone, Lieutenant Sondeen, and I evaluated the rescue section and the ability to deliver a certain level of service in the rescue arena.

Evaluators were not allowed to evaluate their jurisdiction`s package or to even discuss or attempt to influence rating systems. We were able to answer specific questions regarding the application if an evaluator asked. However, each team had a contact person, and any question that arose was immediately relayed by phone to the contact person for that task force; this was done during the entire process and ensured that no one had an advantage.

Each section was rated numerically (given a weight). Each team rated from high to low.

Original members of the review panel included the following: Search: Lieutenant Tom Carr [Montgomery County (MD) Fire and Rescue], Vikki Fenton [Absaroka Search Dogs Inc., Billings, Montana]; Rescue: Battalion Chief Jim Hone [Santa Monica (CA) Fire Department], Lieutenant Eric Sondeen [Littleton (CO) Fire Department], Battalion Chief Chase Sargent [Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department]; Medical: Firefighter/Paramedic John Moede [Los Angeles City (CA) Fire Department], Joseph Barbera, M.D. (Special Medical Response Team), Ellery Gray (U.S. Public Health Service); Technical: Rick Ranous (California Department of Emergency Services), Assistant Chief Steve Storment [Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department]; Logistics: John Caussin [Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue]; Communications: Ralph Minnich (California Department of Forestry); Task Force Operations: Battalion Chief Ray Downey [City of New York (NY) Fire Department], Deputy Chief Frank Moriarty [Chicago (IL) Fire Department]; and FEMA: Kimberly Vasconez.

The final ranking of the teams follows (numerical values have been deleted): 1. State of Utah. 2. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 3. Los Angeles City. 4. New York City. 5. Montgomery County, Maryland. 6. San Diego (CA) Fire Department. 7. State of Colorado. 8. Los Angeles County Fire Department. 9. Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue. 10. Orange County (CA) Fire. 11. Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department. 12. State of New Mexico. 13. State of Indiana, Marion County. 14. Pierce/King County, Washington. 15. Chicago (IL) Fire Department. 16. Riverside (CA) Fire Department. 17. Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. 18. Oakland (CA) Fire Department. 19. Clark County, Nevada. 20. Metro Dade County, St. Petersburg, Florida. 21. Menlo Park (CA) Fire Department. 22. Corpus Christi, Texas. 23. Memphis (TN) Fire Department. 24. Sacramento (CA) Fire Department. 25. Tuscarawas County, Ohio. 26. State of Georgia. 27. Beverly, Massachusetts. 28. Lincoln, Nebraska. 29. Odessa, Texas. 30. Jefferson County, Ohio. 31. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. 32. State of Montana. 33. Burke County, Georgia. 34. Southeast Louisiana.

As you can see, several members of the review committee had task forces that applied and were subsequently selected. The huge difference in what was done then and now is that there was no appropriations bill that specifically singled out a location for a task force, nor was there any up-front money provided without matching funds. In fact, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) restricted grants to 25 awards only–and then only those that could provide a 50/50 hard match. In several cases, organizations listed in the top 25 were ineligible because they had no cash to match federal funds–this was not a requirement with the last two task forces accepted. In fact, Chicago and Georgia dropped out after entering the program because they could not support the process internally. FEMA dropped the original Ohio team after numerous evaluations and the team`s inability to become operational.

With regard to the grant issue, Woodworth`s math is entirely correct. Each task force was asked to submit a specific request for money in two different categories, training and equipment. Virginia Beach`s request was originally for $295,120, but a $100,000 cap was placed on all grants for equipment only. Subsequently, the most any task force could get was $100,000, and you had to match that with local hard money. Subsequently, grants ranged from $4,000 to $100,000, depending on what the locality requested and could match.

…. the program started with only $800,000. That is, in fact, true. However, FEMA enhanced the grants to a total of $1,935,051 (twice the original level), using other moneys when it realized the extent of the grant issue. This was “my bust”; I failed to review the actual financial documents and grant awards. In reality, Virginia Beach received about 120 of the grant money available. Just for the record, 16 of the 25 teams received between $80,000 and $100,000 in grants. Remember that each jurisdiction had to match that with its own money, nothing like the $500,000/no match required recently given away to the new task forces.

FEMA alone determined who received what level of funding. The evaluation committee simply provided the numerical ranking; the budget and grant decisions were based on Joint Cooperative Agreements negotiated by the federal government, the sponsoring state, and the local jurisdiction. The key to receiving a grant was the ability to match funds; otherwise you were eliminated from the process.

Operational readiness is done in a two-phase approach, using an evaluation package and teams. Phase one is a self-evaluation completed by the task force and submitted to FEMA. Phase-two evaluations are completed by on-site teams made up of current task force members, FEMA staff, NASAR staff, and independents with expertise in certain areas. In reality, the evaluators simply follow the evaluation package the task force completed using a strict evaluation document that, once again, provides a checklist of items and processes a task force must have in place to be deemed operational and deployable ….

Once this has been accomplished, the evaluation is forwarded to FEMA with the evaluation team`s comments. FEMA then makes the final decision and notifies the task force of its status. Should a task force not be deemed deployable, it is asked to develop a strategic plan and time frame for accomplishing deployable status.

Finally I would like to coin Woodworth`s term, since we are all “firefighters working next to firefighters” on a daily basis. We were that long before we were FEMA members and, in fact, we are simply that each time we deploy as FEMA members. Each day we go to work and deliver fire and FEMA services, we remain firefighters working next to firefighters. I agree that this is not the first or the last time that politics will be involved in the FEMA program or the fire service in general. The point to be made is not that politics crept in, only that once again–and for the first time in national US&R–politics did what was good for the political system and not what was good for the customer, on an almost unheard-of scale. Consider the scale of grant money: $1,935,051 for 25 teams vs. $1 million for two teams!

The intent of the US&R Task Forces is to deliver emergency response to national disasters. The planning and funding for this program are really no different from that required to respond to any major emergency. Would a locality build a new fire station when it can`t staff or fund its current ones? Why add teams when we can`t support what we have? In the beginning, that selection process was accomplished in a fair and equitable manner, with a level playing field and no bias for location or the identity of the congressman or senator. If after you read this you still feel it`s the pot calling the kettle black, I suppose you`ll just have to call me “Chief Pot.” Thanks for the input. Remember, all the documents cited here are at your disposal if you want them.

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