Friday, September 21, 2007

SC OSHA Cites Charleston Fire Department

By Lou Angeli

Charleston, SC (September 21, 2007) -- South Carolina OSHA didn’t waste any time issuing its report on the June 18th Sofa Store fire in which nine Charleston Firefighters lost their lives. The summary, which was issued by the agency earlier today, cites the City of Charleston Fire Department with willful and serious violations that led to the death the firefighters.

In the notice of citation and penalty, there are four separate violations beginning with the willful violation. SC OSHA reports that the CFD “…knew or should have known that the command system does not provide for the overall safety of emergency personnel and their activities.”

The report adds three serious violations which include, no operating procedure for fighting a fire in a trussed roof building; that body protection was not required to be worn by the nine dead firemen; and that self contained breathing apparatus was not required to be worn at all times by four firemen who were exposed to smoke and toxic substances.

The total fine levied against the CFD is less than $10,000. But according to firefighter safety advocate, Chief Billy Goldfeder, “The fine dollar amount isn't really the issue at this point.” He continues, “The fact that they (the department) were found in violation and those violations directly contributed to the Line of Duty Deaths of nine CFD Firefighters is the issue.”

The citations, especially the willful violation, have rocked the firefighting world. In South Carolina, response from professional firefighters was quick. Michael Parrotta of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association says firefighters have lost faith in Chief Rusty Thomas, and called for his immediate resignation.

Just one day after the blaze, many firefighters urged that Thomas be suspended. But Charleston mayor, Joe Riley, has noted on several occasions that as long as he’s mayor, Thomas will remain the city’s fire chief. But TV journalist Sarah DeMarco notes in a recent report, “Some say if that's the case, then maybe it's also time for Riley to find a new job.“

"The new report is a clarion call for change." says Charleston Firefighters Association Local 61 President Roger Yow.

“It's no longer just fire fighters who claim the Charleston Fire Department is run in an unsafe manner,” Yow notes. “Now state officials also are condemning Chief Thomas's failed leadership.”

Mayor Riley says the city will vigorously challenge citations for the safety violations issued by SC OSHA. He feels that the state agency “…has wrongly punished the city.

The sofa store fire that claimed the Charleston Nine is the worst on-the-job loss for the North American fire service since the events of 9/11/01, and the story is being followed closely by fire-rescue agencies around the world.

SC OSHA’s report is a wake up call for the fire service and has national ramifications. It sends a message to mayors, county executives and fire department board members, nationwide, to choose their leaders based on skill – not popularity.

During the past generation the fire service here in America has seen more change than it did during its first 300 years. In my mind it was just a matter of time before an incident, like the sofa fire in Charleston, took place. Quite possibly it could have occurred in some other American city, because CFD isn’t the only fire rescue agency that still operates in the past.

Chief Rusty Thomas’ choice to ignore firefighting procedures that have been universally accepted is clearly a disregard for the men and women who serve under him. It’s time for Thomas to step down, and allow the Charleston Fire Department to be rebuilt. It’s the best scenario for the citizens of one of America’s most beautiful cities – one that will allow Charleston firefighters to demonstrate their true skills and potential.

Resources for this commentary:

(1) SC OSHA Report
(2) News 4 Charleston
(3) The Secret List
(4) Photos by: Tyronne Walker (used by permission)


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Delaware To Audit Volunteer Fire Companies

State audit won't reveal anything controversial!

In response to a story published in the News-Journal and Delaware Online

by: Lou Angeli

The firefighters' responses that have been posted here are comments from their hearts. A fter all, theirs is an avocation, a job that pays nada...zilch. Delaware's volunteer firefighters and EMT's are a very special breed, the type of person who keeps alive one of America's greatest qualities -- the spirit of volunteerism.

As far as audits are concerned, there's no big deal. Most companies conduct their own 3rd party audits by licensed CPA's. So here's what Mr. Wagner will learn. To meet NFPA recommendations, adopted long ago by Delaware's fire companies, is not an inexpensive proposition. By some estimates, to train and equip a volunteer firefighter to the NFPA-1001 standard runs in the neighborhood of $10-$12K.

That pumper you see racing to the scene of a fire or auto accident is one of over a hundred operated by Delaware Fire Companies. Price tag: $250K plus. And as the fire service assumes more responsibilities -- such as HazMat and specialized rescue -- additional equipment and training is required, and such highly technical training comes at a steep price.

Audits will reveal to the Minner administration that volunteer fire companies have responded to the important need for better daytime response by hiring "paid" personnel to cover peak hours. Citizens certainly won't challenge such a program, because when it's their turn to make the 9-1-1 call, trained personnel are at their front door in minutes regardless of the time of day.

Mr. Wagner will also learn that to reward those who provide such a crucial service to the community, fire companies spend a few bucks for Christmas parties, the annual Banquet and perhaps a summer picnic. I believe that most will agree that such rewards are a small price to pay for the dedication of so many.

Regular audits are a great idea, and it's doubtful that fire companies will not cooperate with Mr. Wagner's office. After all, fire companies are corporations and their board members would be the fall guys if they fail to comply.

Just a note: Ranroad's random comments that theft and misuse of public funds is "common" -- well I'm unable to say from what orifice he pulled that information, so I'll simply note that his comment (ie common) has no basis in fact.

Historically, firefighters in this State vote the democratic ticket -- and any seasoned Delaware politician will tell you that volunteer firemen are the swing vote. Whoever the Republicans choose to go up against the next Democratic gubernatorial candidate, should place Route 52 on hold for a week or so, and make his/her first stop Delaware's Fire Stations. Thanks for allowing me to voice my opinion.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Bittersweet Commemoration and FEMA’s Bitter Mandate

by Lou Angeli

New York, NY (September 11, 2007) -- Today I joined thousands of Ground Zero responders in Lower Manhattan to commemorate the 6th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Of that group, two hundred of us were were invited to read the names of those who perished 6 years ago, the first time that emergency personnel were offered such a privilege. Needless to say, the event was bittersweet.

For those of you who served at Ground Zero, you’ll recall that we were isolated from the rest of the World in our emergency village. There were no TV's, no newspapers at the disaster site, so we never saw the faces of the missing nor heard the pleas from their friends and families.

But today, 9/11 responders finally came face-to-face with the hundreds of families who lost loved ones during the collapse of the twin towers. When it was my turn to walk onto the stage to stand behind the podium, my reading partner and I were overwhellmed by the thousands standing before us holding out photos of their loved ones and waving so many signs of thanks.

Following the collapses, there were 20 rescues by official count -- perhaps one hundred others that were never recorded. Such rescues, especially those of Port Authority Police Sgt John McLoughlin and his partner Officer Will Jimeno, did a great deal to bolster the spirits of the thousand working at Ground Zero. Unfortunately, only one other rescue was made. Rescue turned to recovery within 48 hours.

In the years since 9/11/01, some fire-rescue personnel still feel that they had failed at their mission. One of them, Jeff Johns, a Transit Authority foreman and Ground Zero rescuer, ended his reading by apologizing to the families saying that, “We wish we could have done more. We tried” Failure is something firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers don't take to very well. Neither does Jeff Johns.

70,000 emergency and volunteer responders answered New York City's call for help during the ten day period following the disaster. They came from every state as well as Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, Italy, Israel and France. It was a nation coming together -- the world coming together in the spirit of volunteerism.

Some say that we've lost that spirit, but Americans proved again during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that they were up to the challenge. As Americans, it is one of those things we do best -- Helping our neighbors in time of need.

Feds Attempt to Break That Spirit

However, the federal government has taken a bold step to esnure that volunteer responders, like most of us who were assembled at Ground Zero, won’t be able to respond to America’s next disaster. And that was the buzz at the World Trade Center site following this year’s commemoration ceremony.

Please take note that my definition of a volunteer responder has nothing to do with a person’s avocation. It includes professional firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers, building trades, and medical professionals, who respond to offer their skills during a disaster.

There’s a second equally important tier of responders, those who I refer to as support volunteers. They are the students, housewives, retired folks and church groups who are drawn to the disaster site to help in whatever way that they can. Without them, the crews at the WTC disaster site would not have been nourished or provided supplies.

But FEMA says – NEVER again!

To coincide with the 6th commemoration of the World Trade Center attacks, FEMA announced an ambitious ID program for rescue workers to keep SCUVs from swarming to a disaster scene. SCUV is FEMA’s acronym for self responders – Self Convergent Unafilliated Volunteers.(1)

According to an AP report, The Federal Emergency Management Agency came up with the idea after the World Trade Center attack and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when countless Americans rushed to help — unasked, undirected, and sometimes unwanted.

Volunteers and front line professionals who I’ve spoken to are livid. Even professional organizations, like the Disaster Research Center disagree with FEMA’s move to eliminate volunteers from disaster response.

“The rescue effort at the World Trade Center reminded us of the important role that emergent groups and volunteers have during major emergencies and disasters.” says DRC’s Patricia Smythe. (2)

Others aren’t as polite as Dr Smythe.

Popular internet journalist, Lew Rockwell suggests that FEMA is simply trying to enhance its credibility by discrediting the volunteers. “FEMA hates volunteers,’ Rockwell says, ‘since they do the actual rescuing and rebuilding, as in Katrina.” (3)

Oddly enough, following 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, FEMA’s issued a report that was clearly very favorable to the volunteer response to that disaster. (4) The headline reads, “Volunteers Perform Vital Function in Disaster Recovery.”

In the next edition of “Rescue Us” we’ll examine FEMA’s Volunteer Embargo with more detail, review the agency's track record and discuss what all of this will mean to the unlucky American community, which will play host to the nation’s next major disaster.

(2) Disaster Research Center (University of Delaware)
(4) FEMA Release Number:1490-60 (October 20, 2003)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Ground Zero's Silent Heroes

Mt. Sinai Study Fails To Enroll Out-Of-State 9/11 Responders
by Lou Angeli

New York, NY (September 6, 2007) -- On the eve of the 6th anniversary of the attacks on America, the Brooklyn Borough Hall will play host to a Congressional Sub-Committee which is scheduled to listen to statements regarding the health of 9/11 responders who reside outside of New York City and State. For those of you who served at Ground Zero, you are well aware that a huge percentage of emergency service volunteers at Ground Zero hailed from other locales.

Last week a plea was issued by the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform -- Urgent: Out Of State 9/11 Responders Needed To Testify. The intent was to listen to statements from non New York responders to determine how to identify out of state responders, and convince them to enroll in the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Program.

But - wait. Hold the applause.

Today, the committee agenda was altered. The once urgent plea for out of staters was revoked so that constituents of committee members could be heard. I'd buy into that change, had the hearing been held in DC, before Congressmen representing many other of states. But the hearing in Brooklyn will be attended primarily by New York delegation members, which means that there will be more self-serving New York testimony -- and no voice for Ground Zero's Silent Heroes.

Who are the men and women who responded from outside New York City to serve at Ground Zero? And where are they now?

In its report on the World Trade Center attacks, The Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware noted that volunteer responders, both trained and untrained, were vital to the rescue effort in New York City, especially during the first 72 hours. Excluding FEMA, nearly every agency which has studied the Trade Center disaster makes note of the importance of an organized volunteer response.

The numbers of volunteer workers who responded to Lower Manhattan during the first days following the attacks has been estimated at 40,000, and there are some reports that suggest numbers as high as 70,000.

During the early stages of rescue and recovery, the volunteers who made it to Ground Zero did so on their own. Many were trained emergency professionals, who were never summoned, but rather “self responded” to the site. Because of their expertise, they immediately began to work assisting FDNY search teams. Others “walk-ins” included steel workers, operating engineers, chiropractors, massage therapists, clergy, college students, and housewives.

The vast majority of the men and women who served at Ground Zero were never asked to respond – they did so because of their desire to help. It's what Americans do well -- helping one another during troubled times.

They came from every state and from Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Israel and Italy. Unfortunately, we may never know the names of most of 9/11’s out of state responders, especially those skilled in emergency response – the firefighters, law enforcement officers, paramedics, military and nurses, who served at Ground Zero...then disappeared.

Finding them will be like “finding the needle in a haystack” largely due to FEMA’s ongoing directive to restrict volunteer “self-response” during major disasters. (1) It is a concept that is shared and enforced by many local emergency agencies. In many jurisdictions, especially those that operate as career agencies, such a violation could result in disciplinary action, or even worse -- dismissal.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, FEMA and the US Fire Administration distributed a questionnaire in an attempt to gather statistics regarding the response to the World Trade Center disaster. Many of those who could have answered the questionnaire did not, fearing reprisal.

To make matters worse, published newspaper stories and discussion on “non official” web forums suggested that individuals who had taken it upon themselves to respond, had breeched a crime scene and could possibly face local, state and Federal criminal charges. Out of state responders went off the radar.

According to the 2004 Mount Sinai Study it is estimated that some 70% of all 9/11 responders suffer from illnesses related to the rescue and recovery effort. Like their colleagues in New York City and State, hundreds, if not thousands of out of state first responders are ill as well. After all, they worked under the same horrendous conditions and ingested the same hazardous materials as local emergency personnel. Are they being cared for properly – or are they just biding time?

In a few short years, the Medical Monitoring Program has created an extremely detailed database, which allows healthcare professionals to carefully follow treatment and progress of thousands of World Trade Center responders who reside in New York. Reaching out to responders in other states, who served an extremely important role at Ground Zero, is a very important step.

How to effectuate such a response is determined by two very important criteria: A guarantee to those who enroll that their information will remain confidential. And allowing the screeners to take to the streets to enroll these silent responders in their own hometowns.

Oh -- and there's one more critically important criteria. Having Congressional Committees stick to their published agenda -- not placate their colleagues' constiuents.

(1) FEMA Restricts Volunteers at Disasters