Saturday, July 12, 2008

Foreign Firefighters Respond to California

The Story and Commentary:
by Lou Angeli

The story from AP:
PARADISE, Calif. (July 12, 2008)- As hundreds of blazes continue to char California, additional National Guard troops and overseas crews are being called in to assist exhausted firefighters.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday ordered 2,000 more National Guard troops to join the 400 already on firefighting duty. Australia, Canada, Greece, Mexico and New Zealand are also sending firefighters and equipment, federal officials said. Firefighters in Italy and France have also been placed on alert.

"We are stretched thin, and our firefighters are exhausted," Schwarzenegger said. "The fire season as we've known it is pretty much over. ... Now we have fire season all year round."

Federal officials said they would send more equipment and personnel to California. The federal government has committed $100 million and 80 percent of its firefighting resources to California, said Glen Cannon, an assistant administrator with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"We've put a significant amount of resources there, and we'll continue to add resources until we bring the fires under control," Cannon said.

Why Foreign Firefighters?

In a nation with one million firefighters, the question arises -- Why does California need foreign firefighting assistance? It's a good question but it can be explained quite easily..

Wildland firefights, like those in Central California, can be lengthy campaigns often lasting several weeks or a month. With all of California's available forces and 80% of all federal firefighters on the frontlines, it's time now for exhausted crews to be relieved. So why not send in reinforcements from the midwest and the East Coast?

If we were in the Control Truck, we'd learn that Commanders have already written-off 80% of available American firefighters, because they serve on a volunteer basis. As much as volunteers would like to be on the frontlines helping the folks in California, they have full time jobs and therefore a committment to their employers (and families) to show up for work.

The remaining career firefighters serve primarily in municipalities, and with the exception of an occasional brush fire, city crews see little wildland action. To them, fighting a wildland blaze is an alien tactic, far different than tackling a room and contents fire. Add to that the fact that many municipal departments are short-handed, the result of local governments stretching their resources thin by operating with less than minimum staffing. Sending just a dozen guys to the West Coast would leave a giant hole in their own local protection.

So why shuttle in firefighters from the other side of the world? Well, Australia and New Zealand are wilderness countries where "bush" or wildland fires are a part of everyday life. Firefighters down under know the drill all too well -- and are familiar with the dangers. If you need to bring in ringers -- these are the guys. And just two years ago, the Greek Fire Service was confronted with wildfires of epic proportions, as firefronts of 100 miles in length burned from one end of the country until they reached the waters of the Mediterranean.

As many have noted in recent weeks, California's wildfire season is no longer limited to late summer -- it's become a year-round concern. State and Federal Government have only two choices: Let the fires burn -- or beef up protection by converting what is essentially a seasonal emergency service to full time status. And in order to retain well-trained seasonal personnel, federal agencies like the USFS and BLM will need to ante up, paying their people on par with CalFire/CDF and municipal departments.

Gov. Schwarzenegger and administrators from CalFire and OES are keeping their fingers crossed, lighting candles to St. Florian and praying to the thunder gods that Southern California remains fire free. If a blaze like last year's SoCal firestorm were to whip up again in the next few weeks, the system would fall flat on its googles. Those familar air tankers would be replaced by F-15's, creating firebreaks with missles instead of water.

(1) Associated Press

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Controlling Delaware's Volunteers

Delaware’s Volunteers Face Mandatory Audit

Wilmington, DE (July 10, 2008) – It was about this time last year that Governor Ruth Ann Miller ordered Delaware’s Volunteer Fire Companies to get their firehouses in order. Her demand came in the form of a voluntary audit to be conducted by the departments themselves.

The dispatch that the Governor was issuing at the time came in loud and clear. For the first time ever in the 300 year history of the Delaware volunteer fire service, companies were finally being held publicly accountable for the way they operated.

“This move by Minner…is big time gutsy on her part,” wrote the News Journal’s Ron Williams at the time the Governor issued Executive Order #99. Some believe that the Governor was uncomfortable with embezzlement cases involving Cranston Heights and Frederica fire companies, cases in which both treasurers were found guilty.

However what was once a request from Minner is now state law. Signed by the Governor on Wednesday, House Bill 329 requires that each of Delaware’s 60 volunteer fire departments undergo mandatory financial audits.

State Fire Prevention Commission vice chairman Bob Ricker told the News-Journal that the audits will help ensure that departments are spending their money wisely and create a means for the commission to oversee how funds are being appropriated and then make suggestions about the use of funds

Now comes the rub. Who will determine whether a department is spending money wisely – and what standard will they use?

In my mind, the practice of auditing fire departments will certainly help to reveal inconsistencies in spending, such as theft and embezzlement. But nearly every volunteer fire company is audited by a 3rd party agent, and not a single department has ever refused to open their books when asked.

There’s something more to this audit thing then meets the eye. If you ask me, HB329 is about control.

Although Mr. Ricker didn't come out and say it, HB 329 will place Delaware’s volunteers under the control of the State Fire Prevention Commission. And it won't be long before there is a correlation between annual grants-in-aid to volunteers and the Commission.

Here's one potential scenario. When it comes time to replace old Engine 222, the decision on the purchase of a new rig won’t go to the company floor. Instead it will go to the State Fire Prevention Commission who will have a list of approved vendors as well as a standardized spec. In short, companies will be told who will build their replacement, including pump capacity, size of the water tank, length of hose and how the truck is lettered.

State of Delaware
Department of Public Safety
Division of Fire Suppression
operated by Minquadale Fire Company

No offense to Minquadale -- you guys came to mind first.

Mots national experts agree that control of the fire-rescue services needs to remain with local authorities, and here in the First State that would be best served by a consortium of districts, or perhaps with the county in cooperation with the local companies. But until someone presents that idea to Chris Coons, look for manufacturers’ reps to increase visitation to the offices of the State Fire Prevention Commission.

It’s quite possible that in the future, Delaware’s firefighters will experience their own version of the Space Shuttle syndrome, responding to alarms aboard low-bid machines, wearing low-bid garments and entering burning buildings with tools that may not coincide with the department’s tactics.

A generation ago, Delaware boasted a volunteer fire service of 10,000 members, which represented a huge voting block. Firefighters could swing a local election in a heartbeat and in statewide elections they were a force to be reckoned with. But those numbers have dropped significantly over the past 25 years -- to 4,000 or so -- and many candidates need to be reminded of the contribution of Delaware's volunteers.

Big changes are looming for Delaware's volunteers, however with a few tweaks here and there, the current system can be revamped without much pain, and continue to work for another generation. But if the state intervenes now, as Mr. Ricker suggests, look for many volunteers to hang up their turnouts and helmets.
(1) News-Journal Papers

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

California Is Burning...Again!

Federal Engines Sit Idle as Agencies Seek Additional Firefighters
by Lou Angeli

Big Sur, CA (July 8, 2008) -- With dry winds and low humidity in the forecast, the day doesn’t seem to be a promising one for firefighters working wildland blazes on California’s central coast. The Basin Complex Fire in the Los Padres National Forest has currently destroyed 74,985 acres and is only 11 percent contained. The Basin Complex fire was started by lightning and is burning away at one of the nation’s most beautiful destinations, Big Sur. Scenic Highway 1 remains closed and the towns of Big Sur and Carmel are threatened and evacuations are in place.

Not far south in the Los Padres, the Gap Fire has already taken 9,924 acres and although it is 30 percent contained, today's heat and low humidity may reverse the progress that firefighters had made. The Gap fire is located six miles northwest of Santa Barbara and is endangering communities, cultural and historical resources, like J. Paul Getty’s home. Evacuations are in order there as well.

The US Forest Service believes that Gap fire were intentionally set and has asked the general public for its help in investigating those blazes.

“The information the public provides could be crucial to our investigation into who is responsible," said Forest Service Special Agent Heather Campbell.

These high-profile fires at each end of Los Padres National Forest — in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties — are among 330 state blazes burning out of control statewide. So far, about 1,800 fires have burned over 600,000 acres of forests and woodlands and there is no relief in sight. Fires continue to burn statewide in what many predict will be California’s most damaging wildfire season in decades.

The nation's fire preparedness level on Sunday remained at Level 5, indicating firefighting resources are at their most strained.The idea of fighting so many fires simultaneously is mind-boggling, especially when you consider that stats for national, state and local agencies are tallied separately. So how many firefighters, engines and helicopters are working?

At the state level, CalFire (CDF) reports 20,000 plus firefighters operating aboard 1420 engines and in 420 hand crews. The state also has 300 bulldozers, over 400 water tankers and nearly 100 helicopters operating on the frontlines.

National Interagency Fire Command, which coordinates the activities of federal firefighting resources from its headquarters in Boise, Idaho, reports another 10,000 federal firefighters working in California, with 400 plus engines, 50 helicopters and National Guard C-130’s from Sacramento, Charlotte, Cheyenne, and Colorado Springs.

There are so many fast-moving fires, that they often travel through local fire districts in just a day – sometimes hours. Factor in crews and apparatus from city and county departments that protect areas along the coast, including Carmel, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara City and County, and dozens of volunteer agencies, and the total number of working firefighters easily totals 50,000.

It’s been some time since the nation has stood at Level 5 Firefighting Preparedness, and firefighters and resources from as far away as Delaware and Puerto Rico have arrived to serve on the frontlines.

One firefighter safety watchdog group claims that the Federal firefighting system is understaffed. At the start of the season, only 2/3s of the US Forest Service's 275 engines were staffed.

"The federal fire system is imploding in California. They are crossing their fingers and just hoping they get through the season without a disaster," said Casey Judd, who represents government firefighters from five agencies through the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association.

In an interview with the Monterey County Herald, Judd notes that the US Forest Service is 500 firefighters short of its 5,000-member allotment for the Central California region. He argues that Federal firefighters are working alongside CalFire and Municipal colleagues for less money, so many seasonal firefighting personnel stay home and work at odd jobs.

With Level 5 staffing already in place – compared to last season’s 2 or 3 at the height of the San Diego fires – both federal and state government will need to consider additional outsourcing, and red-card training of out-of-state municipal crews. Such needs become extremely critical when you combine current conditions with the strong potential for wildfires in populated areas of southern California, which have not yet begun to burn.
So here's an invitation to firefighters nationwide to train for their red card and vacation in sunny California.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Wilmington's NEW BLS Service

Originally uploaded by LouAngeli2008

At Midnight on July 1st, BLS and Patient Transport for the City of Wilmington (DE) became the respoinsibility of a newly formed ambulance system operated by St. Francis Hospital. The new agency will increase the number of EMS teams on the street from 2 to 4, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Under the old system, when the lone 2 EMS units were on a call -- which was a very frequent occurenece --, the Wilmington Fire Department would man two ambulances, requiring that engine and ladder companies run short staffed. The department is currently operating with 170 firefighters, 20 short of its allotment.