Monday, March 24, 2008

Poway Firefighters Speak Out

I don't know why I keep reading news articles because I always end up being infuriated or frustrated about something (most often both). In the last week or so, a story broke about how Poway firefighters might have abandoned some homes in High Valley during the Witch Creek fires. In truth, it was a City Administrator that ordered the firefighters to back down and stay out of High Valley.

SD Tribune quoted City Manager Rod Gould that he did in fact make the decision to keep firefighters out of that area after consults with division chiefs. He explained that "if we didn't have enough resources to protect the rest of the city, and if High Valley goes up, we would not protect High Valley,” Gould apparently stands by his statement and would "make the same decision again and again" because he didn't want to send in an already depleted resource to High Valley. Deputy Mayor Bob Emery said it wasn't worth risking firefighters' lives.

Okay, I support Emery's point that we shouldn't unnecessarily risk firefighters' lives but let's not forget the nature of the job is risky to begin with. Yes, certainly there are levels of risk and I certainly wouldn't risk sending men in if the risks are too high or if efforts would make little to no difference. Also, if the City knows that the narrow two-lane High Valley Road have always presented a potential danger to big firetrucks, why hasn't the City done anything about it? Does this mean that High Valley residences have no choice but to figure out how to deal with fires themselves? Well, no, according Gould because it's dangerous. Instead, Gould wants to discuss new fire-prevention measures such as using fire-resistant building materials, tighter vegetation management, and use of mobile emergency pumps to boost water supply during firefighting. Um, if you're not sending firefighters up to High Valley and not allowing residences to protect themselves, who is going to operate these emergency pumps? And who is going to pay for replacing fire-resistant building materials or managing the vegetation?

Mike Swanson, a 30-year Poway Fire Department veteran who retired in December, told his side of the story. He said he and 5 firetrucks sat outside of High Valley for "hours and hours" wondering why they were given orders to stay out of High Valley. They kept asking why they couldn't go fight the fire, especially in the first crucial 5 1/2 hours.

I certainly don't pretend to know all the operational details and crucial moment by moment decisions that need to be made in emergency situations like the Witch Creek fire. But I also don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that it's important to listen to all levels, especially the field crews to make the best decision, as Swanson stated. Yes, Gould had consulted with division chiefs but he doesn't say what their recommendations were. Let's hear from the division chiefs and their conversations with their captains.

And the fact that Gould and other City Administrators were more than happy to keep quiet and let the firefighters take the brunt of the anger and blame from local residences seems underhanded by my standards. It wasn't until some firefighters broke the silence in order to protect the good name of the Poway firefighters that Gould finally came out and owned up that it was his decision. In my book, Poway firefighters are the best and they have done a spectacular job year after year, risking their lives to protect those who live or work in Poway.

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