"Mick" Mayers is the Deputy Director of the South Carolina Emergency Response
Task Force’s Urban Search and Rescue Program (SC-TF1) and a Fire Captain/Paramedic
with Hilton Head Island (SC) Fire and Rescue Department. Beginning
his emergency services career in Bridgeport, PA, he has served as a firefighter
Mayers is enrolled in
the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program and holds an Associate's
Degree in Fire Science Technology from Savannah Technical Institute.
He also maintains professional certifications as a fire officer and instructor
as well as IFSAC Hazardous Materials Technician and National Registry Paramedic
Since 1998 he has served
as a committee member and Secretary of NFPA 1006, Professional Qualifications
for Rescue Technicians. He is an adjunct instructor for the South
Carolina Fire Academy and until recently was an adjunct faculty member
of The Technical College of the Lowcountry.
Among many commendations,
Mick received his department's Meritorious Conduct Medal in 1984 and was
the Fire and EMS Operations Commander during visits to Hilton Head by several
Presidents and Vice-Presidents of the United States, as well as detail
commander of many major sports and special events held on the Island over
the last 10 years.
Capt. Mayers is a native
of Montgomery County, PA and lives on Hilton Head Island with his wife,
Kathleen, and daughters Emma and Caroline. He is a fourth generation
firefighter; his father is the Fire Marshal for Towamencin Township, PA
and his brother is a career fire officer in Anne Arundel County, MD.
Should the Defense Department
or the Fire Service Stick To Their Traditional Role?
By Michael “Mick” Mayers
Deputy Director, South Carolina Emergency
Response Task Force
Although plenty of innuendo was splashed around
shortly after Katrina, throughout Rita, and even now we are hearing some
of the beginnings of it with Wilma, I think we can all agree that there
is plenty of blame to go around at the local, state, and federal levels.
Since even the lamest pundits have said enough about that, let’s move on
to some constructive talk and to what we really should be doing; avoiding
making the same mistakes twice.
Having been part of
the “train wreck” that lawfully responded after Hurricane Katrina to the
affected parishes of St. Tammany and St. Bernard, it seems that more now
than ever it is necessary to start some honest and open conversation about
the future of disaster plans in the nation.
Major General John
White, in his update on the federal hurricane response to President Bush
at Randolph Air Force Base, stated, “we knew the coordination piece was
a problem” . If you remember, he further illustrated the problem
of coordination using the example of five helicopters showing up (theoretically)
to rescue the same individual. He went on to discuss that we were
“not maximizing the use of forces to the best efficiency”.
Whereas I agree with
Major General White in those statements, I can’t say that I agree with
anyone’s presumption that the military alone would do any better of a job
of response than do the civilian agencies, nor do I think that the Department
of Defense taking over in massive national disasters will solve the problem
either. That whole concept is a money grab, plain and simple and
obvious to anyone with a brain.
The problem on a very general level in this
case was not as much with the plan as with the implementation. Furthermore,
the problem was exacerbated by the inability of state and local government
to fulfill their own plans. Why that inability existed is up to the
investigators to determine. My guess, however, is a little less nefarious
than the press likes to imagine. There was a lack of coordination
in a huge part because a large hurricane hit one of the nation’s largest
cities and because the residents and visitors to the affected areas had
become complacent. I also think that the impact of the storm so affected
the communications infrastructure that there was not an effective means
of managing (or even requesting) the appropriate resources when it was
determined that they were necessary.
|Without going into the Federal Response
Plan, I’d like to turn to the spirited debate regarding a national mutual
aid plan. I am happy to say that the Emergency Management Assistance
Compact, or EMAC, exists. That existence, however, is simply in that it
is a functioning mutual aid agreement between 48 of 50 states.
The system does not
work, however, if people aren't able to communicate (like in cases where
the infrastructure is disrupted) or won't communicate (I'll leave that
one up to your imagination) or just plain assume help is on the way. The
affected state must request assistance and the mutual aid states must offer
to fill the request for assistance (because after all, you are getting
ready to send a lot of help and that help requires fuel, food, shelter,
water, etc. so you just can't head out the door and hope for the best).
As I have said before to people, since the
EMAC agreements involve a little more than getting in the fire truck and
heading south (like authorizing physicians to act outside of their state
license and accepting liability for the actions of responders, and of course,
paying the bills), there's the issue of a signature authorizing the help
to respond. Now where that SHOULD only take the better part of an
afternoon, in the wake of Katrina, our state found that with phone service
disruptions and fax machines being incommunicado, the requests were coming
much, much later.
In the meanwhile, FEMA was authorizing
and positioning Federal US&R assets from New York, Washington, and
other corners of the continental United States, requiring them to literally
drive through the states served by US&R teams participating in the
EMAC program while these state teams sat and awaited their lawful orders.
We saw the same setup again in Rita and this week again with Wilma.
When I say there are no lack of resources, I’m not kidding. When
Illinois can mobilize hundreds of firefighters and apparatus through their
Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) and elsewhere 1000 firefighters can
go off to learn about sexual harassment, be reassured there is no problem
in getting manpower.
Now some of you may say agree or disagree
strongly with my tone in regard to those statements, and in both counts
you'd be partially right. There is some issue with "not sending the closest
asset", but truth be known, FEMA has existing arrangements with those 28
highly-trained and highly effective US&R task forces and not with the
other assets, so logically, they could avoid the paperwork shuffle and
simply deploy the 28 task forces based on their relationship with the FEMA
system. The problem with that is, that the assets being passed up were
sometimes ones that had a significant ability to contribute to incident
relief, especially in the aspect of just being closer, and the fact that
these teams were deployed anyway and utilized just as the federal teams
were, makes me wonder if someone was just too stubborn to use those assets.
Furthermore, the argument
that the military can bring a large number of resources to bear on the
emergency in a short period of time is a very valid and rational argument.
The military units that South Carolina’s task force worked with (notably
the Colorado National Guard units working in Chalmette as part of the search
and rescue element) were extremely valuable, very cooperative, very efficient,
and I was proud to work alongside them.
.That being said, 1)
those Guardsmen were very efficient at patrolling and keeping the peace,
and coordinating logistics, but they were definitely on their own plan
and not always in the plan coordinated by the AHJ and; 2) there were also
a large number of firefighters who were available and ready to go and the
only thing keeping them out of going was a statement saying “don’t come”
and their level of self-sufficiency. With some logistical support,
might we not be able to employ a beefed-up version of MABAS utilizing EMAC?
My suspicion, however, was aroused almost
a year before Katrina even raised her head, where there was jockeying from
certain military agencies for incorporating US&R into the DoD in some
fashion. In fact, prior to our agency taking over US&R in South Carolina,
the South Carolina National Guard was the designated US&R agency.
My other concern against wholesale integration of disaster management into
the military is this; do you gut programs that are already in place to
put in a military version? The states have already spent untold millions
of dollars in gearing up for terrorism programs and other preparedness
functions. Do you allow a branch of Federal government to take over
yet another part of delivering service to the public (after all, the statement
has been made by the President that “rescue” and “firefighting” are a local
responsibility, thus the logic in gutting the FIRE grants several years
ago), or do we terminate the people who haven’t been stewards of the taxpayers’
money and get people who are really capable of doing the job in there?
This disaster management concept could
be the slippery slope that leads to a nationalized fire service; although
I found the merits and demerits of the Australian Fire Service to be quite
intriguing (State Fire Service) and I like the thought of an interdepartmental
transfer to Hawaii to finish out my career, I know how nationalization
plays to every fire chief and emergency manager across the country. I anticipate
some lively debate as this whole thing begins to make its rounds.
Will the new military version of disaster management include me, the state
US&R Deputy Director, or am I now out of a job because I haven’t been
to basic training? Am I in danger of becoming obsolete? (I’m not
personally worried; I’ll be eligible for retirement in a little over a
With all of the discussion about NIMS implementation,
there should be no doubt that if done correctly and a military liaison
were utilized in a Joint Management Team format (or even if they just reported
like they are supposed to at the designated EOC) then the military WOULD
be involved and fully able to participate in the plan. The difference is
that they would be a partner in the plan and not the director of the plan.
I guess that's what concerns me when we discuss the military’s version
of disaster management. I think that no one agency has any business dictating
their view on the situation when the emergency is as multi-faceted as this
multi-state, multi-jurisdictional, multi-discipline disaster that threatens
not only the people and property of such a large area but national infrastructure
In Joint Forces Quarterly, an article by
Hamblet and Kline titled Managing Complex Contingency Operations discussed
that in the realm of certain complex missions (like managing disasters
or multilateral peace operations), a flatter hierarchy is necessary at
the command level to accommodate certain concepts considered to be outside
of the military scope. The problem anticipated problem, however, is that
the discussion also pointed out that this shift from a traditional, vertically-oriented
entity is not necessarily embraced by all and has not been without conflict.
Although you don’t know me, anyone who
does can tell you that if I really thought US&R could be done better
by someone else, I'd be the first to step aside. In that regard,
I don't think that "collaborative and cooperative behavior" is on the minds
of these officers as they suggest a take-over of emergency operations in
an attempt to pad their own budgets, so I don’t foresee turning over the
keys to my Suburban anytime in the near future. I think, though,
that if some of these Department of Defense folks were to engage in some
mutual dialogue instead of seeking a power grab, they might get some support
from the people who actually do this for a living.
There are clear reasons why there is a
discussion on whether the military should take over disaster management;
it is because the nation’s emergency services and disaster management officials
need to get in gear and plan for these events, practice their plans, learn
from their mistakes, and put that plan into effect when the time comes.
Of course, some cooperation from the federal government, by not cutting
funding to responders or to FEMA, to choose good stewards of our tax money,
and to permit the cooperation between civilian and military agencies, would
really help as well. I would suggest talking this subject up among
your peers and planning for the future. It could be that the “train
wreck” in the Gulf States today could end up in your living room tomorrow.