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FEMA blocks volunteer firefighters from helping Katrina victims

Friday, Sep. 2, 2005

The head of a volunteer firefighter association expressed frustration Friday that federal disaster relief coordinators were excluding his colleagues from participating in recovery efforts in New Orleans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency asked for 1,000 two-person teams, drawn only from the nation’s career firefighters, to sign up for duty in the Katrina-ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast.

Eric N. Bernard, executive director of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said three-quarters of U.S. firefighters are volunteers, who could be called at a moment’s notice.

‘‘This is about a need and resources. They acknowledged the need, yet they limit their resource pool,” Bernard said.

FEMA spokeswoman Debbie Wing said the volunteers could be called up during a second phase of relief, which she said could come this weekend.

A notice at the Web site of the U.S. Fire Administration, which is a FEMA agency, says only career firefighters were requested because of the way the federal government will reimburse salaries and expenses.

Wing did not answer how the reimbursement issues would be resolved before the feds make the second request for firefighters.

‘‘We can make a difference right now at this very second,” Bernard said. ‘‘The only thing holding us back is government bureaucracy. It’s infuriating.”

The reimbursement issue is only one of several roadblocks FEMA erected in front of volunteer firefighters wishing to lend aid in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The federal government also said the volunteers do not have background checks; they would lose insurance and licensing if they cross the state line; and firefighters cannot get off work.

All of that is nonsense, Bernard said.

Volunteers at the Cabin John station enter $4 million mansions to rescue someone suffering a heart attack.

‘‘They can’t be trusted to go into a disaster area because of a background check?” Bernard asked.

As for the insurance issue, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) signed an order Thursday that authorizes the deployment, if requested, of ‘‘professional volunteers,” a move that would provide coverage if they are sent out of state.

As for getting off work, Bernard said many volunteers are self-employed and set their own schedules.

The arguments put paperwork and bureaucracy ahead of helping people, Bernard said. ‘‘I have never in my life been so frustrated.”

Montgomery County has 1,500 volunteer firefighters. Twelve hours after Bernard sent an e-mail to his members looking for volunteers to send South, 100 had volunteered.

‘‘You can’t sit back. It’s the most helpless feeling in the world to be have all this training and experience and not be able to go out on a basic call only because of bureaucracy. It’s so frustrating,” Bernard said.

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