FROM INANE TO INSANE, COAST TO COAST

BY BILL MANNING

The wildfire season has begun in the western United States, and it’s evident that at least one of the critical lessons from last year’s catastrophic fires in the Southern California wildland-interface has yet to be learned, or employed. The Associated Press reported that, as the fires in Lincoln National Forest grew to 25,000 acres, the U.S. Forest Service failed to deploy C-130 air tankers for fire retardant drops. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said, “I was shocked to be told this fire could have been held to a single acre if the heavy air tankers had been available at the beginning.” Of course, the major issue here is not that the fire burned 12 summer cabins in the mountains, or even that it burned so many acres of forest, but that 300 firefighters were put at risk unnecessarily. There continues to be a major disconnect between operational forces on the ground and the bureaucracies entrusted with supporting those forces.

UWhile fire chiefs and city management in some cities, including Houston, San Diego, and Nashville, for example, have worked hard to maintain or even increase fire department life safety services within the concept of an integrated “all hazards” response matrix, other towns and cities have not fared as well. In Milwaukee, the fire chief himself proposed staffing cuts. Smaller towns such as Royal Oak, Michigan, which plans to cut firefighters, are the norm rather than the exception. Berkeley, California, is taking the well-worn company and station closure route. Oakland fire staffing has been slashed. The firefighter staffing tribulations in Florida, from Miami to Fort Lauderdale and beyond, have grown to almost fabled proportions. The Buffalo (NY) Fire Department, which has been beaten up over the past decade with staffing cuts, will now endure losing chief positions in lieu of further cuts to line personnel. Its fire prevention bureau is a shell; but don’t worry, says the mayor of this city of 300,000, a battalion chief and a lieutenant will be retained to conduct plan review.

    In March, in Mt. Healthy, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb, the fire chief and two of his officers resigned over the city council’s demands that firefighters’ hours be cut to keep the public swimming pool open seven days a week. In Cincinnati itself, the flashover simulator purchased with FIRE Act grant money sat unused for months because the department didn’t have enough training staff to operate it and train their firefighters. Philadelphia Mayor John Street has introduced a slash-and-burn fire department budget plan, calling for reducing staffing by 216 members (nine percent of current firefighting strength), the closure of seven of the department’s 29 truck companies and four of its engine companies, and the reduction of truck company staffing from five to four. With quints (read: further staffing cuts) to follow. It’s another sad case of lack of leadership combined with the inability to market the mission and deter public officials fro using the bogus “structure fires are down” excuse to camouflage their own fiscal ineptitude and lack of creativity.

UEleven companies of the San Bernadino (CA) Fire Department have been outfitted with new first-aid kits—not for firefighters or citizens, but for pets. The animal first-aid kits include oxygen masks for cats and dogs, and firefighters have received animal first-aid training. Maybe we should add a new “pet rescue” component to the FDIC hands-on training evolutions.

UIn a time when some fire departments don’t have proper SCBA or PPE or radios that work, why should it surprise us that firefighters are responding in unenclosed cabs and still riding the tailboard? That a firefighter was killed after being thrown from the unenclosed rig? That Pittsburgh firefighters had been forced to ride the tailboard? That a Hamburg (NJ) firefighter was riding the tailboard to a wetdown when she was thrown off, narrowly escaping serious injury? In a newspaper report, a Hamburg official said it was “just a plain accident.” No, it was just plain stupidity.

UFrom recent congressional hearings, 9-1-1 Commission hearings, and media reports, it should be clear to everyone (except the perpetrators and perhaps the recipients of pork barrel congressional politics) that the current system for doling out federal terrorism preparedness grants to states needs to change, and now. The guaranteed 0.75 percent to each state and territory leaves only 60 percent of the total federal grant pot for discretionary spending. With this and other ham-handed methods as the basis for distribution, the target-rich states are being shortchanged. According to James Jay Carafano, in a piece published on the Heritage Foundation Web site, California, which makes up 12 percent of the U.S. population, receives less than eight percent of general grant funds. Both California and New York receive grant funds to the tune of $5 per capita, while Wyoming gets $38 per capita, the U.S. Virgin Islands gets $105 per capita, and the North Mariana Islands $53 per capita. San Francisco, a city of 800,000 people, receives an amount equal to that of Los Angeles, a city of four million. Sioux County, Iowa, population 32,000, receives more than Des Moines, the capital city with a population of 200,000.

UThe city of San Carlos, Florida, is considering requiring firefighters to mow the lawns at the fire stations. The firefighter/lawn boy dual function is not uncommon in some departments. No doubt, it helps the budget, and why not cut lawns when you could be training? But Bonita Springs, Florida, stopped the practice altogether. Said the district spokesperson, one Debbi Redfield, “[The firefighters] needed to be a little bit more presentable when responding to calls.”

UIt doesn’t look like New York’s new “citywide incident management system” (CIMS) will do much to alleviate the multiagency incident command horror show between police and fire departments that’s been featured for years at emergencies throughout the city, including September 11, 2001. Beyond the fact that Mayor Michael Bloomberg seems to have no recollection of the street fights between NYPD and FDNY over who’d make the cut at auto extrications (the primary agency in the new CIMS at these incidents is “first to arrive”), it’s unclear for most major incidents requiring multiagency responses as to who’s running the show. This not only flies in the face of all IMS principles and practices learned and developed by the fire service over many years, but it forebodes command inefficiencies, miscommunications, and tragedies down the road. Most members of NYPD wouldn’t know an incident management system if they tripped over it. However, congratulations are in order to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly. Because of his extraordinary leverage in the Bloomberg administration, in conjunction with the leadership vacuum at the highest levels of the fire commission/department, NYPD is to be the lead agency for all CBRN and haz-mat incidents, seeing to it that the city’s terrorism response monies will be directed to and controlled by the police department.

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