America’s emergency responders, and in particular its firefighters, were mentally side by side with their comrades during Hurricane Hugo and the Bay Area earthquake disasters. Never before has there been such complete coverage by the media before, during, and after large-scale operations. We watched and listened as the fire services on both coasts were taxed to their physical, mental, and emotional limits.

No magazine could show the horror, the frustrations, and the exhaustive heroics as they were telecast minute by minute, day after day. In future issues we hope to share lessons with those that lived the experience. How do you cope with a 17-foot wall of water smashing into your city? How do you account for human beings being crushed under one mile of reinforced concrete when you are able to remove only 10 feet per hour? How do you handle blocks of woodframe dwellings ablaze and fed by severed gas mains? How do you make a risk analysis study when 60 percent of your town’s occupied structures lie in various states of collapse ruin?

Results-oriented efficiency was impacted miraculously by favorable circumstances that just happened to be in place. In the case of Hugo, the hurricane tracking provided a time lag to procure, move, and plan for operations and logistics. Although the fire services were basically left on their own, time was on their side.

The earthquake was another matter. In 15 seconds towns and cities were brought to their knees—both physically and in prayer. The fortunate circumstances were that it occurred during daylight hours, without the wind that fanned the flames of the 1906 holocaust, and four minutes after dismissal of urban center workers. The World Series activities reduced the life load on collapsing bridges and roadways.

Some of the solutions were also threatened with scary “what ifs.” What if the city had gone through with the sale of its last fireboat, the only water supply to San Francisco—an ingeniously designed, hand-laid, portable hydrant system? What if there were secondary collapses in the search and rescue sites?

If there is one immediate lesson, it is for city management. Operations relied on the dedication, bravery determination, ingenuity, and selflessness of the most overlooked national service—the firefighters. Their mind-blowing responsibilities were handled despite the lack of manning levels and “too high cost” training skills, the confusing and top-heavy training drills, and the substandard and often inadequate tools and equipment.

The firefighters performed through the barrier of sheer exhaustion to which others would have succumbed many hours and even days earlier. They fought off the mental stress of split-second, life-and-death decisions. They rallied unselfishly on their own time, not knowing about the welfare of their own families.

In describing the earthquake to Newsweek magazine, an Oakland resident likened it to a hand clap from God that made cars jump up and down like a Disney movie. I believe that He clapped them once more after that: The second time He joined all of us in applause for the firefighters who so expertly and unselfishly handled His two mistakes!

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