City’s response inadequate

The city’s reaction to a request from two firefighters to assist in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort has puzzled us.

Two weeks ago, firefighters Kathy Reynolds and James Rogers responded to a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for full-time firefighters by submitting applications to Fire Chief Gary Littlefield. Rather than forward the applications, Littlefield held on to them and referred the matter to the city’s Administration. Since the city apparently didn’t have a policy to cover sending staff to assist in disaster relief, the city put a hold on the applications while it developed a policy. In the meantime, the spaces in the program Reynolds and Rogers applied to have filled up.

The city’s desire to make sure it has a policy to cover the city and taxpayers is understandable. Leaving aside momentarily the question of why the city didn’t have such a policy in place, however, we don’t understand why the city couldn’t submit these applications while it worked out the details, as other cities, such as South Portland, did. South Portland has four paramedics ready to go whenever they are needed.

It’s true that many of the firefighters who volunteered for this duty have yet to be called up. However, the city’s response made it appear as though it was dragging its feet in an emergency and made these two firefighters feel as though it was blowing them off. Reynolds complained that, after submitting her application early in the week before the Labor Day weekend, no one from the city’s Administration let her know what the status of her application was before leaving for the weekend.

“I don’t want to fight with the city. I just want to do what I’m trained to do,” said Reynolds, who has twice won decisions from the Maine Human Rights Commission, which ruled that the city tolerated discrimination within the fire department.

We believe her. She wasn’t picking a fight here. She has been genuinely frustrated with the response she’s gotten from the city on something she felt quite passionately about.

To make matters worse, many of the city’s police officers, firefighters and paramedics didn’t like the policy the city drafted and released last week. The policy requires employees to use their vacation time to assist in disaster relief.

That doesn’t make any sense. Traveling to southern Louisiana now would be no vacation. If city employees are willing to leave their home and family to assist in a disaster, they ought to be able to do so without sacrificing their vacation time. Firefighting, policing, and delivering emergency medical care are stressful lines of work. The people in these professions need to be able to take time off, regardless of whether they’ve volunteered to assist in disaster relief, which is itself quite stressful.

In this case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would have reimbursed the city for these two firefighters’ salary and benefits, according to Littlefield. If the city were going to be reimbursed for the time, why would it require employees to take vacation time on top of that?

If a disaster of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina were ever to strike Southern Maine, Westbrook would need communities that were willing to send employees to help immediately. If every other community reacted the way Westbrook did, this city and the rest of Southern Maine would be in trouble. By adopting a policy that requires employees to use all their vacation time to assist in disaster relief, the city is sending the message that, although its employees might be willing to help, it is not.

“They shouldn’t have to take vacation time. They should be released by their employer to go down there,” said Len DeCarlo, public affairs officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Hopefully, governments at the federal, state and local levels are learning through Hurricane Katrina how ill-prepared this country is for disaster. In a post-Sept. 11 world, we can’t afford to be so poorly equipped to handle disaster.

Since Sept. 11, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out a staggering amount of money to local fire departments to purchase new equipment and training. Some of that money has come to both Gorham and Westbrook, which has allowed Littlefield this week to offer up some of the department’s old air tanks for the hurricane relief effort. He deserves credit for taking stock of the city’s equipment and offering up what it can.

As we’ve all witnessed in recent weeks, however, in the event of a disaster, all that equipment and training can quickly be overwhelmed. What governments at the federal, state and local levels need to be able to do – and quickly – is coordinate. They need to work together to get trained professionals responding to a disaster. One of this country’s greatest assets is the collective skill of the people who live here.

If we could only harness it, there would be no disaster we couldn’t face.

Brendan Moran, editor

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