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Chaos During Oso Slide May Spur Long-Awaited Change In Fire-Crew Mobilization Law

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Elaine Thompson
/
AP
Workers use hand tools next to heavy equipment at the scene of a deadly mudslide nearly two weeks earlier nearby, Thursday, April 3, 2014, in Oso, Wash.

A proposed law that’s making its way through the state legislature could change the way first responders are mobilized during major emergencies, such as floods and landslides. Because the slide that devastated Oso last March wasn’t a fire, state crews were slow to help local teams.

Within hours of the Oso mudslide, Snohomish County fire Chief Eric Andrews arrived on the scene. He’s part of a defense committee that coordinates shared resources in the region. And for years, he’s been sending fire crews out to other areas to help with big fires. He was the official liaison between the chiefs in Oso and the state. But because nothing was on fire from the landslide, he says his hands were tied there.

He asked a Senate committee to imagine what it was like to be the guy in charge of that situation.

“Going, I know there’s resources, I know how the system works, it’s worked for years, it’s worked well for years, it’s been coordinated, it’s been defined," Andrews said. "I see it work, where hundreds and thousands of firefighters even have gone to incidents. But, am I able to get the help here that we need now? And the answer was, I couldn't."

He says he couldn’t get state-level crews to join the Oso response for a full week. The challenges created by that delay are still causing administrative hassles. For example, reimbursements for outside crews have stalled because they didn't have enough people to stay on top of documentation paperwork early on in the event.

He says the response also would have been more efficient and safer with state coordination, especially considering how heavily they relied on local volunteers during the clean up and search-and-rescue operations. 

The landslide last March killed 43 people and destroyed 49 homes in rural Snohomish County.

For about three years now, fire chiefs have been lobbying for a change that would broaden the emergency response system beyond fire events, to cover things like floods and mudslides. This time, they handed the Senate committee a petition signed by 214 first responders to Oso, asking for support of their proposal. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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