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Baghdad fire chief seeks help from Austin

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Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2006 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:17 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Emily Baker

Killeen Daily Herald

AUSTIN When disaster strikes in the heart of Iraq, residents are not sure whom to trust, which can make even the best response plans obsolete, Baghdad's fire chief told Austin's city and emergency response leaders Wednesday.

The fire chief, a coalition adviser to the fire chief and a 4th Infantry Division leader met with the Austin officials during a video teleconference at Austin's emergency management center to learn how to develop disaster plans that will work.

In the next few weeks, officials in Iraq and Austin hope to develop training exercises that will prepare Iraqi emergency response personnel.

"This is a foundation we need to build," said Lt. Col. Adrian Bogart, the 4th Infantry's chief of civil military operations, from Baghdad. "This will really help a lot."

The 4th Infantry deployed to Iraq late last year to train Iraqi military and police forces. The division's leadership has solicited city-planning advice from Austin officials since the deployment began, as did the 1st Cavalry Division's leaders during their deployment from 2004 to 2005.

For Wednesday's video teleconference, Austin officials prepared two disaster scenarios and questions Iraqi response personnel should answer when developing response plans.

Details of the scenarios could not be released because they have not been approved for official use. One scenario dealt with response to a bird flu pandemic; the other was about a roadside bomb attack.

Both scenarios apply in Iraq because two human cases of bird flu have been reported and because of frequent roadside bombs.

Though Iraq's emergency response personnel have more experience with roadside bombs than Austin's, the city does have plans detailing how agencies should work together during major disasters, said Steve Collier, of the city's office of emergency management.

"When we last talked to them, they laid out a situation they have over there that when people are responding to these types of things routinely, one or two agencies do very well," Collier said. "When all agencies are involved, they start to struggle. For some it's just turf, some it's the political environment."

The 4th Infantry's leaders asked Austin officials for a multiple bombing scenario because that is a likely situation requiring many agencies, Collier said.

"That's something we do a lot is interacting agencies," Collier said.

A new challenge for Iraqi emergency response personnel is the attacks that occur when they arrive at bombing scenes, said the fire chief, whose name was not released for security reasons.

"The terrorists shoot and are killing some of my guys," he said. "I lost a chief and six firefighters in one week."

The same people killing response personnel are discouraging citizens from helping at disaster sites, the fire chief said.

When the chief arrived at the holy Shiite mosque in Samarra that was bombed Feb. 22, residents tried to help put out the fire. The insurgents, he said, told the residents they were helping the wrong people.

Iraqis in general do not trust the emergency response system because of such confusing messages, the fire chief said.

Austin officials encouraged the fire chief to develop a message now to distribute to residents about what to do during a disaster. They also encouraged him to consider religious leaders and others the Iraqis will trust more easily to deliver that message.

The Austin leaders also encouraged the fire chief to consider how to keep core city functions going during a time of disaster.

"This is city government 101," said Toby Futrell, Austin's city manager. "We're trying to teach them about everything from trash collection to electricity and power to water and waste water, elections, court systems, everything we can think of."

Austin and Iraqi leaders plan to meet again in two weeks to discuss more response plans and training scenarios.

Contact Emily Baker at ebaker@kdhnews.com

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