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Problems smoldering for N.O. Fire Department
By Michael Perlstein Staff writer

If New Orleans firefighters had half a moment to ponder their problems, they’d probably spontaneously combust: flooded and ruined equipment, 50 percent of their stations out of commission, a nearly 10 percent drop in personnel, drought-like conditions, anemic water pressure and a long, hot hurricane season staring them in the face.

Distracting these firefighters from their litany of woes is, ironically, fire. A seemingly unending rash of calls has kept the department scrambling day and night, stretching already taxed resources but somehow boosting the squad’s sense of purpose, District Capt. Norman Woodridge said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of stress in dealing with all this, but it’s your job. When duty calls, you go and perform your task. That’s what firefighters do,” Woodridge said.

Like most things in post-Katrina New Orleans, life inside the Fire Department is far from normal. But with public attention focused on other pressing issues like levees, crime and politics, a badly limping fire force is preparing for summer with scant attention and only meager assistance. Nicholas Felton, president of New Orleans Firefighters Local 632, said a normal pre-Katrina shift consisted of about 210 firefighters. Nowadays, that number can dip as low as 120, he said. Overall, the department has decreased from 741 firefighters before Katrina to 689 today, although the number of sick, injured or furloughed front-liners at any given time can leave the force paper thin.

“We’re responding to fires with less equipment, less personnel and less engine companies,” Felton said. “That presents a huge potential problem with injuries. We’re starting to see more and more injuries and a lot of these guys are being forced to come back to the job before they’re fully healed.”

The pace of calls has not allowed the department to catch its breath. Overnight Monday, firefighters responded to a remote information center in Bayou Sauvage that burned to the ground, only to rush to a massive five-alarm blaze that leveled the Chenault Creek Apartment Complex in eastern New Orleans at about 5 a.m. That followed more than two dozens serious fires over the past 10 days, including eight fires that broke out in a 48-hour period starting last Thursday.

“There have been a number of big fires lately, including property fires, but it’s not a rash of arson,” Woodridge said. “It’s all the same types of cases we had before: people smoking, electrical fires and faulty wiring, vagrants trying to cook in abandoned houses.”

While the lingering effects of Katrina have everything to do with the fire department’s current challenges, Woodridge said, those challenges are now being overcome without the national attention — or sympathy — that accompanied the nation’s worst-ever natural disaster last August 29.

“It’s a scramble sometimes, but we’re basically self-contained. We’re just having to do more with less,” he said.

In many respects, Katrina was a defining moment for the city’s century-old fire department. Like police, the force had its share of deserters, but those who stayed were pressed into non-stop hero mode: pulling people from roofs and attics, handling a dizzying array of medical emergencies, distributing food and water. As fires raged across the wrecked city, the department was forced to bypass the crippled water system and, in many case, suck floodwater directly from inundated streets.

Amid the catastrophe, firefighters and rescue personnel descended on New Orleans from around the country. Equipment was donated, repairs were launched and help at fire scenes was plentiful. Ten months later, the department has largely been left to its own devices. Right now the department is lobbying hard to retain two frequently used fire-fighting helicopters — Voodoo I and II — on loan from FEMA until June 30.

“We really don’t know what they’re going to do (with the helicopters), but we hope we can keep both. They’re a tremendous asset to the city right now,” Woodridge said.

In order to bolster their claim for the choppers, the fire department is trying to systematically document the city’s water pressure crisis, a problem caused by the loss of some 85 million gallons of water daily through broken underground water pipes.

Woodridge said fire personnel are checking fire hydrants throughout the city to gauge their water pressure, then logging their findings on a map. Dramatically low water levels are reported immediately to the city’s Emergency Operations Center, but the bulk of the measurements just get added to the grid.

“In order to present FEMA with a solid argument that we need these helicopters, we’re gathering scientific data on a day-to-day basis,” Woodridge said.

If the helicopters are yanked, the city is likely to rely on long-standing but rarely used “mutual aid” agreements with fire departments in neighboring parishes, spokeswoman Carlene Barthe said.

“If we lost the Voodoo helicopters, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We have other avenues,” Barthe said.

Among the other solutions being pressed into action, Woodridge said, are the department’s water tankers, large trucks that ferry water to a fire scene. At the scene, the tankers dump water into a makeshift pit so pumper trucks can supplement faltering fire hydrants.

“Once again, though, it’s putting more of our people on the street,” he said. “A fire that may typically be a three-alarm fire is going to a four-alarm just so we can have the proper manpower.”

While nobody is predicting a disruption in fire protection, Felton said the problem could get worse before it gets better. He cited a lack of recruiting to beef up the beleaguered department, even as other cities try to lure away New Orleans firefighters by offering higher pay.

“We’re losing firefighters and we’re not replacing them,” Felton said. “Neighboring states are picking at our firefighters as well as our EMS personnel...We need to address this before it reaches a total nuclear meltdown.”

Woodridge said the poaching is in full-swing.

“We’re losing our personnel, especially our young guys,” he said. “After Katrina, they’re a hot commodity. Not only can they fight fires and respond to medical calls, they’re experienced with water rescue.”

While the inner workings of the fire department aren’t usually front-burner issues, they will reach that status quickly if insurance companies downgrade the city’s firefighting capabilities and raise rates.

“If this keeps up, that’s exactly what’s going to happen: people are going to pay more money for less (fire insurance) coverage,” Felton said.

Woodridge believes the department’s most pressing needs will be addressed before there are any changes in the city’s fire rating, but he acknowledges that some improvements are out of the department’s hands, such as FEMA’s proposed replacement of 31 flooded or damaged fire trucks.

Meanwhile, fire officials are doing everything they can in-house to keep morale from flagging. Woodridge said nearly 80 percent of firefighters lost their homes, forcing many to live in temporary trailers apart from their families. Woodridge said the department has enlisted counseling, a chaplaincy and medical help for firefighters who may be feeling the psychological heat.

“These firefighters are beat, they’re busted, they’re away from their families and they’re out of their homes,” Felton said. “They have a recipe for disaster for there.”

Woodridge agreed that the department needs relief, but until it comes, he is certain that his people will persevere.

“There has been tremendous wear and tear on the men, but we have a very committed and resourceful department,” he said. “We just have to adjust on a daily basis. That’s the task we’re faced with.”

(Michael Perlstein can be reached at or (504) 826-3316.)