FEMA suspends Phoenix's rescue team over firearms rule
The Associated Press
PHOENIX- The Phoenix Fire Department's Urban Search and Rescue team has been suspended by a federal agency because it brought armed police officers for protection on hurricane relief missions.
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon called the reaction from FEMA "stunning, unbelievable, bewildering and outrageous."
Phoenix's team included four police officers who were deputized as U.S. marshals when they participated in relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.
The team was credited with plucking more than 400 Katrina survivors from rooftops and freeway overpasses in flooded sections of New Orleans.
Phoenix officials are threatening to refuse deployments in the future or possibly pull out of the federal agency altogether unless the rules are changed to allow teams to bring their own security, even if that means police with guns.
Phoenix police were added to the team about a year ago, and officials say they are essential to protecting firefighters and FEMA's $1.4 million (euro1.17 million) worth of equipment.
Assistant Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan said his department also is questioning the federal agency's ability to manage working conditions, security and communications.
"We have an obligation to provide the safest environment as we can," Khan said.
U.S. Marshal David Gonzales said he was dismayed by the suspension because the setup with the police officers seemed ideal.
"We think this was a model," he said. "We think all rescue teams should have armed escorts wherever they go, and we think this is something they should adopt nationwide."
FEMA relies on 28 elite teams like the Phoenix group to perform specialized rescue operations immediately after terrorist attacks and natural disasters.
According to the mayor, FEMA officials advised the team to bring U.S. marshals along on the initial trip.
After Hurricane Katrina struck, firefighters faced deployment to areas plagued by looting and lawlessness. Twice, Phoenix's team was confronted by law enforcement officers who refused to let them pass through their communities and told them to "get out or get shot," Gordon said.
Officials told the Phoenix team on Sept. 26 that their help was no longer needed after members of the group were seen embarking on a helicopter flight with a loaded shotgun while helping with the aftermath of Rita.
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