A Bittersweet Commemoration and FEMA’s Bitter Mandate

by Lou Angeli
New York, NY (September 11, 2007) -- Today I joined thousands of Ground Zero responders in Lower Manhattan to commemorate the 6th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center. Of that group, two hundred of us were were invited ny the Mayor's Office to read the names of those who perished 6 years ago, the first time that emergency personnel were offered such a privilege. Needless to say, the event was bittersweet.

For those of you who served at Ground Zero, you’ll recall that we were isolated from the rest of the World in our emergency village. There were no TV's, no newspapers at the disaster site, so we never saw the faces of the missing nor heard the pleas from their friends and families.

But today, 9/11 responders finally came face-to-face with the hundreds of families who lost loved ones during the collapse of the twin towers. When it was my turn to walk onto the stage to stand behind the podium, my reading partner and I were overwhellmed by the thousands standing before us holding out photos of their loved ones and waving so many signs of thanks.

Following the collapses, there were 20 rescues by official count -- perhaps one hundred others that were never recorded. Such rescues, especially those of Port Authority Police Sgt John McLoughlin and his partner Officer Will Jimeno, did a great deal to bolster the spirits of the thousand working at Ground Zero. Unfortunately, only one other rescue was made and within 48 hours rescue turned to recovery.

In the years since 9/11/01, some rescuers still feel that they had failed at their mission. One of them, Jeff Johns, a Transit Authority foreman and Ground Zero rescuer, ended his reading by apologizing to the families saying that, “We wish we could have done more. We tried” Failure is something firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers don't take to very well. Neither does Jeff Johns.

70,000 emergency and volunteer responders answered New York City's call for help during the ten day period following the disaster. They came from every state as well as Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, Italy, Israel and France. It was a nation coming together -- the world coming together in the spirit of volunteerism.

Some say that we've lost that spirit, but Americans proved again during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that they were up to the challenge. As Americans, it is one of those things we do best -- Helping our neighbors in time of need.

Feds Attempt to Break That Spirit

However, the federal government has taken a bold step to ensure that volunteer responders, like most of us who were assembled at Ground Zero, won’t be able to respond to America’s next disaster. And that was the buzz at the World Trade Center site following this year’s commemoration ceremony.

Please take note that my definition of a volunteer responder has nothing to do with a person’s avocation. It includes professional firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers, building trades, and medical professionals, who respond to offer their skills during a disaster.

There’s a second equally important tier of responders, those who I refer to as support volunteers. They are the students, housewives, retired folks and church groups who are drawn to the disaster site to help in whatever way that they can. Without them, the crews at the WTC disaster site would not have been nourished or provided with supplies and personal protective equipment..
But FEMA says – NEVER again!

To coincide with the 6th commemoration of the World Trade Center attacks, FEMA announced an ambitious ID program for rescue workers to keep SCUVs from swarming to a disaster scene. SCUV is FEMA’s acronym for self responders – Self Convergent Unafilliated Volunteers.(1)
According to an AP report, The Federal Emergency Management Agency came up with the idea after the World Trade Center attack and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when countless Americans rushed to help — unasked, undirected, and sometimes unwanted.
Volunteers and front line professionals who I’ve spoken to are livid. Even professional organizations, like the Disaster Research Center disagree with FEMA’s move to eliminate volunteers from disaster response.

“The rescue effort at the World Trade Center reminded us of the important role that emergent groups and volunteers have during major emergencies and disasters.” says DRC’s Patricia Smythe. (2)

Others aren’t as polite as Dr Smythe.

Popular internet journalist, Lew Rockwell suggests that FEMA is simply trying to enhance its credibility by discrediting the volunteers. “FEMA hates volunteers,’ Rockwell says, ‘since they do the actual rescuing and rebuilding, as in Katrina.” (3)

Oddly enough, following 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, FEMA issued a report that was clearly very favorable to the volunteer response to that disaster. (4) The headline reads, “Volunteers Perform Vital Function in Disaster Recovery.”

Next time, we’ll examine FEMA’s Volunteer Embargo in more detail, review the agency's track record and discuss what all of this will mean to the unlucky American community, which will play host to the nation’s next major disaster.

(2) Disaster Research Center (University of Delaware)
(4) FEMA Release Number:1490-60 (October 20, 2003)

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Comment by Mick Mayers on September 16, 2007 at 11:47pm
I guess I don't see it as trying to get rid of volunteers (or SCUVs as they appear to have been labeled) but as a way of corralling them and making sure they are who they say they are. I posted a few days ago on Credentialing Disaster Responders (http://www.firefighternation.com/forum/topic/show?id=889755%3ATopic%3A61264) and I have also done research using sources from the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center and although there is wholesale agreement that emergent bystander response can significantly (and positively)impact the first hours of a disaster, we have also seen the problems in coordination when these rescuers descend upon a scene and fail to take orders from the incident commander, causing more work for everyone, not to mention adding to the logistical nightmares of providing for those responders. I too am a responder in disaster settings and I've seen the results first hand. I am certainly not against volunteers from the community responding to help, but I am strongly in favor of managing that response.

Best case scenario? We can utilize bystanders to perform duties that will benefit the victims and maximize resources. Should that happen? Absolutely. Can it happen in the current scenario where someone decides they're jumping into the pickup truck and showing up on a scene with no food, no water, no shelter, and saying they are a deployable resource? I would heartily recommend against it.

I have seen a lot of ad hominem discussion in other forums and articles on this subject so far; FEMA has told us we shouldn't respond and they're all idiots, so their idea must be wrong. I think it would be a good idea to analyze the reason why this avenue is really occurring and work together to solving a problem that would benefit the people who really need the help.

I appreciate your point of view and I'm going to link this blog to our discussion on my forum post so maybe we can get some more feedback from those participants. Thanks.

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