What Hurricane Katrina taught the fire service

What struck me most after reading “What Went Right” was how we as the fire and rescue service had been marginalized


If you haven’t read the official report assessing the federal response to Katrina, “Lessons Learned: Federal Response Report for Hurricane Katrina,” which was presented to President George Bush in February 2006, it’s worth the effort. The 217-page report, which can be accessed at http://www.whitehouse.gov/reports/katrina-lessons-learned/, contains some interesting and insightful reflections on the chaotic aftermath of Katrina.

There are three sections of the document that should be of particular interest to all of us in the fire rescue community: Chapter 5 — Lessons Learned; Appendix A — 125 Recommendations; and Appendix B — What Went Right.

What struck me most after reading “What Went Right” was how we as the fire and rescue service had been marginalized. What also concerned me were some of the recommendations based upon those lessons learned, specifically those regarding the proposed integration of the Department of Defense (DOD).

Before I go any further, I have to give credit to our brothers and sisters in the DOD — without their aircraft, helicopters and support, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish many of the positive things that happened during this event. We owe those folks for what they are doing around the world every day in service to our country, and for their response to Hurricane Katrina.

Equally, I will sing the praises of the United Coast Guard (USCG) until the day I drop dead. They deserve every bit of credit they have gotten, are still getting, and will forever get…despite the fact that I think they juiced their numbers up to 33,000 rescues.

In a document titled, “The United States Coast Guard at Its Best — Hurricane Katrina,” there is a foreword written by Admiral Thomas H. Collins, the U.S. Coast Guard commandant. It reads, “They (Coast Guard personnel) don’t wait to be told what to do — they just do it.”  You have to love a guy like that!

What the Federal Response Report for Hurricane Katrina missed was that there were a lot of folks “doing it” during Katrina, and many of them were fire rescue folks — both local and national — who responded in partnership with FEMA or EMAC to the Gulf region.

It was nice to see FDNY and NYPD get some credit on page 127, specifically because of what happened on Sept. 11 and in memory of our fallen brothers. But where is the credit for the New Orleans Fire Department personnel who stuck it out against all odds — holding on during the hurricane, rescuing people immediately afterward, fighting fires in the midst of a flood and even arming themselves to ensure their own safety?

I spent all of my time in New Orleans following Katrina, but most everyone I spoke to who was somewhere else “doing it” talked about working with the local fire or police chief in the affected communities. Bottom line, many of the locals stood tall.

Most of us in the fire rescue business have a hard time taking credit for all of the good things that we do daily, let alone for our efforts during the “big ones.” Humility is a positive attribute, and a cornerstone of the Maltese cross. But we’re playing with the big dogs here, folks, and we had better understand both the end game and the politics associated with what may be coming down the pike — for better or worse — both in terms of funding and system-wide changes.

On page 94 of the Federal Response Report, titled “Critical Challenge: Integrated Use of Military Capabilities,” there are 10 recommendations addressing what I believe is a broadened role for DOD. It specifically states in recommendation 22: “DOD and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should develop recommendations for revision of the National Response Plan (NRP) to delineate the circumstances, objectives, and limitations of when DOD might temporarily assume the lead for the federal response to a catastrophic incident”.

More disturbing is recommendation 23, which states: “DOD should revise its Immediate Response Authority (IRA) policy to allow commanders, in appropriate circumstances, to exercise IRA even without a request from local authorities.”

Now I’ve responded to the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center terrorist attacks and have seen first hand how we as a nation have reevaluated our civil liberties in the name of security. It now appears we are bordering on changing specific laws, and even the Constitution, to possibly move the military from its primary role in support of National Disaster Response into a new leadership role.

The primary selling point of this concept seems to be the superior ability of the military to provide command and control, as well as logistics and planning, for large-scale events. It’s hard to argue that, so I won’t, but what seems to have been missed is that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. Forest Service and California Fire Service stole those military concepts and created the Incident Command System (ICS), which has now spread across the United States and is outlined in the NRP and under the National Incident Management Systems (NIMS).

A key element to the California system has been the “typing” of resources, which has been standardized across the state. It is being adopted now and will soon be implemented under NIMS as well. Bottom line, Any fire field commander with a small FOG (Field Operations Guide) will soon be able to order typed resources through the system. Now that’s power.

The last piece of the puzzle is under development and it is long overdue. On March 3 the NIMS Integration Center, working in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, announced it would launch an Intrastate Mutual Aid Project; in other words, a National Mutual Aid System.

Is it too little, too late? It’s hard to say, but we have to start somewhere. The last figure I saw regarding the actual number of paid and volunteer firefighters in this country was just around 1.7 million uniformed personnel. Add in EMS, law enforcement, public works and the private sector and we may yet develop a real, robust National Mutual Aid System. One that works seamlessly with our partners in DOD, supporting local responders, and respecting civil authority by integrating under their Immediate Response Authority, and NOT attempting to take over control.

The successful response to Hurricane Katrina couldn’t have happened without the primary actions of local responders, volunteers, state and federal resources, and the military. No one did it alone; we all did it together. And marginalizing any entity or agency only serves to further create dysfunctional relationships which could further divert us from what should be our primary goal: One System – One Response!

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