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Published: Thursday, April 3, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

State law delayed firefighters' response to mudslide

  • Rescue and recovery work continues at the site of a fatal mudslide near Oso on Tuesday.

    Mark Mulligan / The Herald

    Rescue and recovery work continues at the site of a fatal mudslide near Oso on Tuesday.

OSO — Eric Andrews knew it was futile, but he had to try.
Andrews, the Gold Bar fire chief, is in charge of requesting the statewide fire mobilization for this part of Washington.
When a big wildfire strikes in Snohomish County, that tool is ready to be used to call in more help. It also solves a key question: Who pays for that help?
Andrews knew he had to request statewide mobilization for the March 22 Oso mudslide. But because it was not a wildfire, he knew his request would be denied.
And that's what happened, because of how the statute is written.
It leaves "a deadly gap" in being able to get resources sent where they are needed in most types of natural disaster emergencies, according to one state lawmaker.
Fire chiefs from around the state have been trying to get the law changed for years. Their departments routinely respond to large-scale emergencies that don't involve smoke and flames — regional flooding, gas leaks, winter storms.
The Oso slide highlights the need for change.
It's a complicated conversation that's sure to continue as responders begin to reflect.
The state's wildfire mobilization process allows emergency responders to focus on "how" and not "how much," said Gregg Sieloff, the assistant Lynnwood fire chief who served as a deputy incident commander in Darrington.
"If that would have been in place, a lot of our anxieties would have been taken care of," Sieloff said Wednesday.
In his role as a mobilization regional coordinator, Andrews works with the local fire chief on scene to make sure they follow proper protocol for requesting state resources.
When the slide hit Oso, Andrews started the process. He made the first phone call about 2 p.m. that day.
The official request was dated March 24, two days after the slide, and it took another day to get the notice of denial.
While that was taking place behind the scenes, people were publicly questioning why local officials hadn't requested state resources right away. The truth was that they did, within the first few hours.
"I was hopeful there was some way they could act (because of) the magnitude of this incident," Andrews said.
Instead, local officials went through a different process to declare the slide a disaster — a system that goes all the way up to President Barack Obama. That's how the National Guard got called in.
The law that governs how fire departments in Washington can request statewide resources during a large-scale emergency is limited to fires.
About five years ago, local firefighters, through the state process, had requested extra ambulances as they were evacuating a nursing home during a flood in Skagit County, Andrews said.
That request was denied too, because it was a flood, not a fire.
The Washington State Fire Chiefs Association has been complaining to the Legislature for the past few years asking for a change in the law, including during the 2013-14 session, Andrews said. So far, they've been unsuccessful.
"In my opinion, and in that of many others, it is the state Legislature's failure to address this issue despite our fire chiefs' numerous attempts to get this addressed," Andrews said.
The most recent version of the bill passed the House public safety committee unanimously, said Rep. Mary Helen Roberts, D-Edmonds.
The bill died in the appropriations committee. So did a Senate version of the same bill.
Roberts doesn't serve on the appropriations committee, but she acknowledged Wednesday that little new funding was approved this year.
Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, the prime sponsor of the House bill, said the state mobilization plan includes other emergencies in addition to fires, but it's the actual law that still needs to be changed.
"It's a deadly gap that we needed to fill to make sure the fire (resource) was ready to mobilize quickly," Goodman said Wednesday.
As it became clear that the slide was a full-scale disaster, county officials started the process of seeking aid from state and federal governments.
That disaster-declaration process happens rarely, said Andrews, citing Hurricane Katrina as an example. Andrews also serves as an assistant fire chief in Clearview. He's been a firefighter since the 1970s, most of that time spent in rural Snohomish County.
Traditionally, even after a federal disaster declaration, local agencies are still on the hook for 25 percent of the costs of their emergency response. That 25 percent is usually split between the state and the local agency, though sometimes the Legislature decides to pick up the whole tab, he said.
After the Oso slide, that process could leave each individual fire department that responded with out-of-pocket costs for 12.5 percent of their total expense. By earlier this week, the Clearview district already spent $50,000 helping Oso, and the costs still are climbing, Andrews said. The Darrington fire district's annual income from property taxes in 2013 was $286,000. The Oso fire district's was $117,000.
The state has asked local fire chiefs to estimate their additional costs thus far. The chiefs are working on that now.
When all is said and done, local leaders will have to provide careful documentation showing how they tracked the money they spent, Andrews said, right down to what individual staff were doing at certain hours.
Andrews was at the slide scene that first day, managing with spotty cellphone service and without a printer or fax machine. He was unable to complete the paperwork on site for a formal wildfire mobilization request.
The need to get more crews on scene quickly took higher priority, he said.
Such requests require Andrews and the local fire chief to confer on scene and fill out a "incident complexity analysis" form.
That form goes to state emergency-management officials, then through the state fire marshal's office and ultimately is approved or denied by the chief of the Washington State Patrol.
The Patrol has to follow the direction from the Legislature, spokesman Bob Calkins said.
The Oso mudslide form was completed about 3 p.m. March 24, after two days of phone calls. Andrews was notified of the official denial about 1 p.m. the next day, he said.
There was an emergency phone conference, and the state fire marshal sent staff trained in fire mobilization. Still, it was widely acknowledged that the state Attorney General's Office has maintained that the law does not apply to incidents that aren't fires, Andrews said.
The same fire-mobilization process was used during the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle. It was used for something other than a fire only one other time, for a 2008 motorcycle rally near Spokane, said Wayne Senter, a retired Kitsap County fire chief who serves as executive director for the state fire chief's association.
Fire chiefs were told the WTO request was mishandled and should not have been approved, Andrews said.
"After those events, the language was scrutinized through the Attorney General's Office, and they determined the way the wording existed was that only wildland firefighting was eligible for all-risk mobilization," Senter said Wednesday. "What we have been doing since we got that unfavorable opinion is working to change the law to make it very clear that (the funding) covered all risks, all hazards."
Some lawmakers likely were hesitant to pass the bill because there were concerns of where the money would come from, Senter said.
The wildfire mobilization process was designed to bridge the gap between the initial response of local firefighters and when state and national resources are in place for long-term operations, Senter said. That process can take two or three days.
In the wildfire mobilization model, locals generally can request state resources within 12 hours, Senter said.
It's a system they've used many times, and it's worked, he said.
"Not only does it work, it works really well," Senter said.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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