OFF THE CUFF, AND FURTHERMORE …

BY BILL MANNING

I swore I would not use this column to get into the Presidential election. I’ll keep that promise, though it’s killing me to stay quiet. I’ll offer a fire service-style analysis (or rant, depending on how you look at it) after the election.

The weekend of the anniversary of 9/11 surely was a difficult one for many people. How did you and your department commemorate it? What did the citizens in your community see from its fire service? Send me your take on it and what you did, and I’ll print it. I’ll admit I’m looking to be uplifted here, but all comments are welcome, positive and negative. I get the sense, as we’re barraged by election-year politics, that many Americans would like to put 9/11 out of their memories, or deemphasize it. Which is all the more reason the fire service must help take the lead on keeping the murders of 9/11 front-and-center in the American consciousness, not just to preserve the past but to protect the future: Some of our citizens and politicians don’t seem to want to accept the fact that there are unspecified (large) numbers of well-funded and well-organized monsters who want to visit their culture of death on the rest of us. It’s nice that elements of fire service leadership are calling for us to leverage the wave of good feeling that will be felt from the movie Ladder 49, but we don’t or shouldn’t need Hollywood to provide the lever—we already have a real-life “movie” that, at least in my head, plays over and over and over again, and it’s called “9-11.”

Is anyone else but me wondering why certain corners of fire service leadership are backing Chapter 9 of the 9/11 Commission Report? I have CYA Mayor Bloomberg’s 14-page “corrective” letter and report to the Commission in hand. It’s as though he wrote Chapter 9 himself. So much for objective, independent, nonpolitical “lessons learned” investigations. Perhaps it’s not as transparent as Dan Rather’s brand of so-called news reporting, but there’s no opacity whatever in the Commission’s paint job. The ol’ whitewash just ain’t what it used to be.

I was saddened by the passing of Jim Page, California fire chief and founder of JEMS magazine. He was a true fire service visionary, and he had a great impact on this business. Even greater than his articulate style and progressive beliefs was the way he burned for the fire service to become better than it was. May we all burn for fire service progress the way Jim Page burned for it.

The recent horrible spate of firefighter LODDs around the country is truly disturbing. In the 16 years I’ve been with Fire Engineering, we’ve yet to put a dent in the problem. Well, what are we going to do about it? A national firefighter safety awareness campaign is a great thing, but it will be meaningless unless we change fire department culture—firefighter by firefighter—in meaningful and specific ways. I’m well aware that for many the essence of “the brotherhood” implies “I would die for you, brother, I would die for you, sister.” It’s a heroic thing to say or feel. But let’s be frank. How many firefighters die in the line of duty with these words on their lips? Again, this isn’t a Hollywood movie. I’d venture a guess that at least 75 percent of all LODDs each year are avoidable and some measure of stupidity or irresponsibility—not necessarily the stupidity or irresponsibility of the deceased—can be attached to them. We are too often careless with our own lives; we are too often underprepared; we are too often irresponsible and stupid. In my movie, the courageous hero says, “I will live for you brother, I will live for you, sister, and I will make sure you live for me, too.”

An acquaintance from one of the highly technical and specialized FEMA response teams called in the aftermath of one of our recent natural disasters down South. He indicated search and rescue operations were over. When I asked him what he was still doing there, he answered, “Oh, they detailed me to drive VIPs to and from the airport. It’s great overtime pay.” Uh-huh.

A recent conversation between a fire chief and a politician centered on stationwear that not only satisfies recommended NFPA standards but helps minimize burn injury potential. The politician stated he was not in favor of such a standard for the volunteer firefighters in his town because changing clothes would add to response times. The fire chief responded forcefully that every possible means available were required to protect firefighters from burns, regardless of whether they’re paid or not. Said the politician, “We don’t want to laden the volunteer service with the same rules as those for the career service if those rules could jeopardize community safety—and if it’s my house on fire!” Yes, my friends, to far too many people, you are the expendable fire service, and what they’re saying is their house is worth your life. The only way to change that is to stop acting like it. I would have had some very choice words for the politician. The chief was remarkably self-controlled.

If your department or agency were required to fill out a WMD incident response preparedness report, how would it fare? How would it fare in terms of a master plan, identified target hazards, interagency response coordination/relationships, interagency response training, evacuation plans, clearly defined command roles and responsibilities based on the National Integrated Management System, notifications, utilization of DHS dollars, task force implementation, haz-mat training, automatic mutual aid, predetermined martialing and staging areas, regular planning meetings, logistical needs, resources for long-term campaigns, communications, portable radio redundancy/contingency plans for dead zones/large buildings/underground areas, and a thousand other areas requiring immediate attention?

A recent lawsuit brought by the family of a young man who died during fire recruit training leads me to surmise there’s more than one fire department that needs to reevaluate its treatment of its cadets. Instructors who fantasize their fire recruit training programs as Marine Corps boot camps need to be doing something else for a living.

The Senate passed its Homeland Security Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2005. It included amendments for $750 million to fund the FIRE Act and $100 million to fund the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) Act. This is very good news. The House of Representatives’ version of the appropriations bill calls for $600 million for the Fire Act and $50 million for the SAFER Act. I’m in favor of federal assistance for fire department staffing, even though in some ways it’s like applying a Band-AidT to cover the wounds caused by the fiscal mismanagement that plague our cities. And to reiterate: The SAFER Act is like your parents agreeing to help out with your car payments for a few years but you don’t know if, when they wean you down and stop paying altogether, you’ll have the kind of job it takes to keep the car.

Later this month marks the first FDIC East in Atlantic City. Hope to see you there.

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