09/02/2007

Disaster rescue crews may get federal ID cards

Some worry it could make it harder for those offering to help

By DEVLIN BARRETT
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Retiree Gene O'Brien hurried to the World Trade Center site after Sept. 11, 2001, as a volunteer helping to shuttle supplies to police and fire workers. Some days, his only ID to get into the disaster site was a tattoo on his forearm.

"A couple times I showed them my Marine tattoo, and they said go ahead," recalled O'Brien, adding that he and other volunteers also came up with their own makeshift identification cards.

"We didn't forge anything, we just made them up with our own pictures and at one point we copied a UPC code off a Pepsi can and they were as good as gold," said the Scarsdale resident.

Used in D.C. area

It might not be so easy the next time disaster strikes.

To provide better control and coordination, the federal government is launching an ambitious ID program for rescue workers to keep everyday people from swarming to a disaster scene. A prototype of the new first responder identification card is already being issued to fire and police personnel in the Washington, D.C., area.

Proponents say the system will get professionals on scene quicker and keep untrained volunteers from making tough work more difficult.

But they also know it is a touchy subject, particularly for those devoted to helping in moments of crisis.

"Wow, how in the world do we say this without love and respect in our hearts?" said deputy assistant U.S. Fire Administrator Charlie Dickinson.

"Everybody wants to come to the fight, so to speak, and no one wants to step back and say 'No, I can't do this.' The final coup de grace was the World Trade Center. Hundreds came that were never asked," Dickinson said. "Good intentions, good hearts, and it was extremely difficult for the fire department and the other departments to deal with them."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency came up with the idea after the World Trade Center attack and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when countless Americans rushed to help — unasked, undirected and sometimes unwanted.

Volunteers disagree

Many of those volunteers angrily dispute the notion they were a burden. They insist that they were able to deliver respirators, hard hats and protective boots to workers when no one else seemed able.
Ground zero volunteer Rhonda Shearer and her daughter launched a supply system that bypassed regular channels, often infuriating city officials.

Even as she delivered box trucks packed with supplies over months of recovery work, she increasingly ended up in a cat-and-mouse game with New York City's police and emergency management agency.

Shearer, 53, said the experience convinced her that agencies are ill-equipped to handle major disasters — but don't want outsiders pointing out their failings.

Similar frustrations arose after Katrina, when people were shocked that the government struggled to take basic supplies such as water to the worst areas.

Dickinson, the federal fire official, said the government is not trying to discourage volunteers, but he thinks there should come a time, within a few days of a disaster, when civilians step back and let the professionals take control.

For reasons ranging from general safety to protection from lawsuits, construction and demolition companies want to see an ID card program succeed.

Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association, said his industry is talking with aides to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger about putting it in place in his state.

"If California goes ahead and does that, it will flow across the country," he said.

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