I realize that this story is getting good play already, but I’m so stunned that I have to repeat it here. From yesterday’s Salt Lake Tribune:
ATLANTA – Not long after some 1,000 firefighters sat down for eight hours of training, the whispering began: “What are we doing here?”
As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters – his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week – a battalion of highly trained men and women sat idle Sunday in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta.
Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers. Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.
On Monday, some firefighters stuck in the staging area at the Sheraton peeled off their FEMA-issued shirts and stuffed them in backpacks, saying they refuse to represent the federal agency.
Federal officials are unapologetic. “I would go back and ask the firefighter to revisit his commitment to FEMA, to firefighting and to the citizens of this country,” said FEMA spokeswoman Mary Hudak.
…”They’ve got people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified,” said a Texas firefighter. “We’re sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven’t been contacted yet.”
…”There are all of these guys with all of this training and we’re sending them out to hand out a phone number,” an Oregon firefighter said. “They [the hurricane victims] are screaming for help and this day [of FEMA training] was a waste.”
Firefighters say they want to brave the heat, the debris-littered roads, the poisonous cottonmouth snakes and fire ants and travel into pockets of Louisiana where many people have yet to receive emergency aid.
But as specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew’s first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.