PATIENT FIRE SERVICE, PATIENT TERRORISTS?

BY BILL MANNING

“Hopefully, the terrorists will be as patient as the fire service has been in waiting for federal money for terrorism response,” someone said to me recently. “The first World Trade Center Bombing was 1993, and we’re still waiting. Everything Ray Downey said at the congressional hearings in 1998 still applies, and we’re still waiting.”

Congress has demonstrated once again it just doesn’t get it. Just last week, the U.S. Senate rose to new heights of public indecency as it used the President’s Homeland Security Bill, which contains $3.5 billion for first responder terrorism response, as the excuse for another pork orgy.

After the House approved the bill-though not before padding it with $1 billion in its own pork monies-the Senate showed who’s boss. It added an astounding $3 billion in amendments to the bill-nearly the total amount for first responder preparedness-for such important security interests as a new Smithsonian building that houses dead frogs and other animals, commercial fishing in New England, farmers’ markets in 31 states and roadside produce stands in Michigan, a backup supercomputer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, coral reef mapping in Hawaii, foot-and-mouth disease studies in New York State, and on and on.

And with every day that goes by, the statistical probability of another terrorist strike increases. Terrorism warnings and terrorist activities-such as the failed attempt to buy an FDNY ambulance with cash-prove that the terrorists are not on holiday.

Again at the grassroots level, in much the same way the FIRE Act was started (back in the days when we had to convince our own that it was the right thing to do), a group of firefighters from Westchester County, New York, just a few miles from the Big Apple, developed a countywide plan for upgrading their response capabilities to terrorism, which, to our knowledge, is the first regional terrorism response plan developed by the fire service. We outlined the plan in the June issue of Fire Engineering. Westchester County officials and national representatives from that area have bought in.

In less than a month’s time, the Westchester County concept has grown into a regional terrorism response network in waiting. Representatives from more than eight departments, from Boston to Baltimore, have begun the effort to acquire and link their resources. This new alliance is called the Northeast Corridor Antiterrorism Special Operations Fire Task Force.

The Antiterrorism Fire Task Force, should Washington allow it to succeed (that is, fund it and then stay out of the way), would conform with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge’s criteria that emergency response plans be standardized and regionalized. Just as important, the plan would help address response time and staffing issues, in particular with respect to NFPA 1710. With the economy still in lethargy, staffing for career and volunteer fire departments is getting worse. Staffing cuts and station closures are the norm, not the exception.

But this plan, without funding, is just a plan. Northeast Corridor Fire Task Force participants are seeking seed monies through FEMA. Westchester County fire officials say they need $8.2 million in seed money to launch their pilot program-about half of what the Senate version of the Homeland Security Bill would pay out to fishermen in New England.

It also remains to be seen if the feds are willing to recognize (through dollars, not words) the fact that the fire service is the lead emergency response agency to domestic terrorist incidents and, as such, all the law enforcement agencies swarming to the $3.5 billion like ants to honey will be held in appropriate abeyance and not be awarded federal monies for redundant services already provided by the fire service, which already has begun to happen through other fiscal avenues in many areas of the country.

Sometimes patience is a virtue. In this case, it’s not-not when it’s your neck on the line. The terrorists are at the ready, and the fire service must be patient with Congress and the Washington bureaucrats no longer. Get your plans together, as they’ve done in Westchester County. Let’s get the money, and let’s roll.

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