Today, our guest, UH journalist Michael Berryhill, prepares for a rainy day.
The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Within a year of Hurricane Katrina, three major books
were published about the government's failure to cope with the disaster.
But none told the story of local government's biggest success: the response
of the New Orleans Fire Department.
The day before Katrina arrived, the department dispersed its firefighters
and equipment to sixteen pre-assigned "places of last refuge," tall, sturdy
buildings on higher elevations. Each firefighter brought a three-day supply
of food and water. Some of them brought their own boats.
They rescued thousands of people from flooded homes during those first three
days. They also fought fires, sometimes sucking toxic floodwaters through
their hoses. When conditions grew too dangerous at the places of last refuge,
the firefighters changed tactics. They withdrew to a college on the dry west
bank of the Mississippi and created a centralized operation, improvising
dormitories, a fuel depot and a repair center.
The French Quarter had escaped the flood, but a fire from one leaking gas line
could have ravaged its closely packed buildings. The firefighters were ready.
When 160 rail cars filled with petrochemicals derailed, the department's newly
reorganized hazardous materials team answered.
All this was possible because New Orleans firefighters were trained in something
called the Incident Command System. This system was developed to fight forest
fires, where large numbers of people and equipment must be kept in the field for
weeks at a time. That was exactly what the New Orleans firefighters were up against.
At the top of the system is the single person in charge, the incident commander.
The incident commander directs four managers. The first of them, the commander of
operations, directs the actions to manage the incident. The commander of planning
collects and displays information about the incident and its status. Lacking
computers, the planning commander for Katrina resorted to index cards and grease
boards. The commander of logistics provides the resources. His guys pumped diesel
from abandoned gas stations for the fire trucks. They also found an experienced
chef in the ranks who could cook for 400 instead of a dozen firefighters. Last
comes the finance/administration commander, who tracks the costs and maintains the
records for whatever logistics buys.
The key to this system is called the span of control. Nobody supervises
more than five to seven people and nobody takes orders from more than one boss.
If a hurricane hits a major city this season, the FEMA should be better prepared
than during Katrina, for its new director is former Miami fire fighter David Paulison.
Paulison previously led the National Fire Academy, which trains thousands of fire
fighters in the Incident Command System.
Look back at how the firefighters worked and you wonder whether city, state and federal
officials shouldn't all be trained in the Incident Command System. Imagine government
officials knowing exactly what to do and exactly to whom they report. But as one
New Orleans fire captain told me,
"I don't know if you can take what we do and apply it to a bunch of bureaucrats."
I'm Michael Berryhill, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
This story is adapted from a long piece on the New Orleans firefighters written in
the summer of 2006. I visited the city twice that summer and interviewed some of the
key officials as well as rank and file members of the fire department. Among them
were Richie Hampton and Tim McConnell, who led activities in the field as well as
Charles Parent, the head of the New Orleans fire department.
Michael Berryhill is assistant professor of journalism at the University of Houston's
School of Communication. Before joining the faculty in August 2006, he worked for
27 years as a writer and editor for Texas publications, including the
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle, D and Houston City Magazine,
and Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. His freelance journalism has appeared
in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's and The New Republic.
Despite the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans firefighters were able to answer this downtown fire.
(Photo courtesy of Chris E. Mickal, district chief, New Orleans Fire Department: http:www.FIRELINEPHOTOS.com)
Firefighters rescuing stranded citizens. (Photo by Captain Richard McCurley who, on 12/2/2005, died in the line
of duty enroute to an incident.)
NASA image of Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans. For a very large image, click on the
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.