A Budget War Story from 1961
Many initiatives get funded in the wake of a disaster or tragedy. Some become the fabric of the fire service story. Listening to local politicians reacting to the weekend wind-driven fires reminded me of this story.
The November 6 – 7, 1961, Bel Air/Brentwood brush fire remains one of the largest losses in Los Angeles County. (see map HERE) While battling that blaze, with 60 mph winds, a second major fire started at Santa Ynes on November 7.
Combined, the fires consumed 16,090 acres, 493 homes and 190 outbuildings – $30 million loss. 200 firefighters injured. L A County reported that 78% of the endangered homes were protected. (Flashback: The Bel-Air/Brentwood Fire)
Only the Los Angeles/Orange county Sylmar fire on November 15, 2008, was worst, losing 6,500 acres and 600 mobile homes. (LA Times comparison)
James O. Page provided this example of disaster-based budgeting :
On the first night of the Bel Air Fire (November ’61) I was driving Chief Victor Petroff and we were on the move all night long. Several times during the night we met on dusty fire roads with Chief Klinger and his driver. Throughout the night we could hear the boss on the radio, seeking updated information, arranging for meetings with other chiefs, inquiring about the welfare of personnel, and scolding food dispenser operators to “get over there and take care of those guys.” He was 50 years old at the time but he didn’t slow down or sneak off for a nap all night long.
The rest of the story was told to me by Kenny Hahn in 1977. According to Kenny, the Board of Supervisors was having its regular Tuesday morning meeting. “All of a sudden,” Hahn said, “the wooden doors at the back of the meeting room swung open, and through them marched Chief Klinger. He was covered with soot and dust and I swear he must have had a fireman out in the lobby with a bellows full of smoke, puffing it through the doorway after the chief.”
“He marched down that aisle like he’d just bought the Hall of Administration,” Supervisor Hahn continued. “He wasn’t on the agenda but he walked right up to the podium and took over the meeting.”
“What could we do?” Hahn asked rhetorically. “It seemed like the whole county was on fire and the fire chief wanted to talk to us. Keith Klinger knew how and when to get attention.”
“I noticed he had a folder in his hand,” Kenny Hahn remembered. He then recalled how our chief gave the Board a blow-by-blow report on the battles that were underway in the mountains between Sepulveda Pass and Topanga.
Then, Hahn recalled with a grin, Chief Klinger pulled from the folder a ten-year plan for improvement of fire protection in LA County. Again, he asked, “What could we do but vote yes on it?”
The Board of Supervisors adopted Chief Klinger’s ten-year plan and provided the money for it, thus the fleet of brush rigs to be known as ’400′ engines, as well as several new stations. Obviously, Chief Klinger had the plan developed long before the Bel Air Fire and was just waiting for the best time to spring it on the Board of Supervisors.
source: oral history collected by the Los Angeles County Fire Museum
Can We Do The Same Thing Today?
Three northern Virginia fire chiefs have performed a similar response in the past decade:
Arlington County Fire Chief Ed Plaugher was ready when his Board of Supervisors asked the "what we can do?" question in the aftermath of the 2001 Pentagon attack. Resulted in four-person staffing for all fire suppression companies.
Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel pushed to increase truck company staffing from three to four and to staff a heavy rescue company in the aftermath of a 2007 high rise fire called "catastrophic" by Virginia OSHA. More than three employees were hospitalized overnight, one was in intensive care for days. It was a three alarm fire in an unsprinklered 18 story highrise at the height of a violent thunderstorm. Three hundred occupants, 4 civilian and 6 firefighter injuries. (After action report HERE)
Prince William County Fire Chief Kevin McGee was required by his board to zero-out any additional career positions in his Fiscal Year 2007 and 2008 submissions. In the aftermath of the line of duty death of Technician Kyle Wilson, McGee propoosed a five year plan to get to four person minimum staffing on 21 engine companies and establishing 24 hour career battalion chief coverage.
None of them got everything they asked for. Wonder what our Maryland colleagues will do with their opportunity?
Weekend casualty in Prince George's County: Baden VFD old Brush 36 – overrun by fire