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Stuck in a hard place in 2010

The American people deserve the best we can provide them in terms of support

By Chief Glenn Gaines
Acting U.S. Fire Administrator

For all local, state and Federal government organizations along with most of the private sector, 2010 will go down in history as an extension of yet another year of hard financial times.

To be honest, the forecast for 2011 does not look much better. Most private and public organizations were forced to give up in the past few months on closely held and desirable programs and services in an effort to ensure financial stability.

Unfortunately, many opted for reducing or eliminating mitigation and prevention efforts without seeking alternatives to retaining any portion of this vital component of their organization.

So how do we maintain critical services such as fire and life safety inspections when fire prevention education and code enforcement positions are eliminated? There are options, such as self certification of businesses that have a history of code compliance and ensuring they continually comply with fire and life safety codes.

Other options include training and certifying company officers and recruits during recruit school to enforce the fire code. Inspections of high risk occupancies can be scheduled during low service demand times (Sundays, non-commercial holidays, etc.).

Yes, it may be inconvenient for business owners, but that is the cold, hard impact of less government. The simple fact is we cannot allow senior residential and children day care facilities to operate without ensuring they are a safe place for at-risk citizens to live or visit.

I was successful in charging for inspections and keeping the fees low since we hired retired firefighters and officers to do the inspections. We paid them a good hourly wage without benefits.

New challenges
During 2010 we witnessed several new challenges for the fire service other than the loss of revenue.

A real threat to firefighters has begun to surface once again … terrorism. We have seen numerous attempts to kill American citizens through the use of the blast device. So far the Department of Homeland Security and its partners, Federal, state and local authorities, have thwarted terrorists attempts; however, we have to be perfect — they (terrorists) only have to be lucky.

Here are some very real reminders:

Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a Somali born United States citizen, was arrested and accused of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction at a Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony in Portland, Oregon on Nov. 26.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was accused of attempting to detonate a suicide bomb on an airplane bound for Detroit on Dec. 25 last year.

A man crashed his plane into an office of the Internal Revenue Service in Austin, Texas, in Feb., killing himself and one other person.

After discovering a bomb in a smoking vehicle parked in New York City’s Times Square, police evacuated several blocks around the popular tourist spot. The bomb made of propane, gasoline, and fireworks did not detonate.

Fire growth patterns
In different areas, rapid fire growth patterns in residential and office buildings have trapped firefighters and citizens on numerous occasions across the country. The proliferation of photovoltaic solar energy panels poses new and difficult challenges for firefighters and code officials. Alternative fuels (all electric vehicles, hydrogen and bio-fuels) also create new opportunities for firefighters, code officials and training officers.

In addition, today’s fire and EMS leaders face the resurrection of old infectious diseases such as H1N1, dengue fever, and MRSA. These diseases all bring their own unique challenges to all first responders.

In my travels over this past year, I am encouraged and impressed with the commitment, skill and compassion of the American firefighters, officers and chiefs along with their comrades, the emergency medical service providers and their leaders.

We as Federal officials only need to provide them opportunities to succeed. Success can be amplified through appropriate legislation and continued Federal support.

It is true that every disaster begins with a call to the local 9-1-1 center. It is right for departments to coordinate fire and EMS local responses – until we experience a Federally-declared National disaster. It is then when the American people depend on the Federal, state and local responders to perform a coordinated response effort.

The American people deserve the best we can provide them in terms of support. At the United States Fire Administration, we are committed to that end.

Thank you and I wish you all a healthy, safe and successful 2011!

About the author

Glenn A. Gaines is the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator and Acting U.S. Fire Administrator for the United States Fire Administration (USFA). He began his tenure in March 2009 and is responsible for managing USFA and the programs and training activities at the National Emergency Training Center. During his illustrious 37 year career, he served in numerous capacities, including Fire Marshal, Chief Training Officer, and Chief of Operations, culminating in his appointment as Fire Chief from August 1991 until December 1998. He was in charge of the nationally recognized Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Urban Search and Rescue team that frequently deployed throughout the United States as well as internationally.

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