'Big Easy' is anything but for firefighters, police

Hurricane Katrina

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By BILL DWYER

New Orleans, known as The Big Easy, has been transformed by Hurricane Katrina into a place where little is easy. This past weekend, several Oak Park and River Forest firefighters left for New Orleans to help lend a hand in that desperate situation.

The five are part of a 600-person, 37-division Illinois MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System) contingent that was activated Sunday. Personnel from MABAS Division 11, which includes Oak Park and River Forest, gathered at the North Riverside fire department Sunday afternoon, then drove down in a convoy to downstate Effingham, where they met up with the rest of their Illinois colleagues.

The Illinois contingent arrived over a two-hour period at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge late Tuesday morning and early afternoon, said River Forest Fire Chief Jim Eggert. After getting fed and inoculated against such diseases as hepatitis and malaria, they headed into New Orleans, where they'll spend the next two weeks providing basic fire, rescue and emergency medical service in 12-hour shifts.

The regular hourly salaries of responding personnel will be absorbed by their local municipalities, while all overtime and other costs will be reimbursed by the federal government. Illinois' total contribution to the recovery effort is estimated to run around $11 million.

Oak Park Deputy Fire Chief Tom Ebsen said that Oak Park Chief William Bell, a member of Illinois' statewide Incident Management Team, will serve in that capacity in Louisiana. Two other Oak Park firefighters, Battalion Chief Ron Kobyleski and firefighter/paramedic Colleen Komperda, will serve on the backup team in Baton Rouge, replacing personnel there who responded to the emergency in New Orleans. They'll be accompanied by River Forest Deputy Chief Bob Nortier and firefighter/paramedic John Newberry.

The Illinois contingent is part of a huge nationwide response intended to assist and spell weary public safety personnel in Louisiana and Mississippi who have worked brutally long hours in dangerous environments in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Beside trained fire and paramedic personnel, many fire departments in the Gulf Coast region also desperately need the trucks and equipment their out-of-state colleagues are bringing, to replace their own equipment that was destroyed or damaged by last week's hurricane and flooding.

"We feel their frustration," said Oak Park's Ebsen. "As firefighters, you want to help people. We understand that so much of their equipment and resources have been destroyed."

Beyond simple rest and relaxation, many Louisiana and Mississippi public safety personnel have themselves lost homes and loved ones in the disaster, and need time off just to deal with those issues. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said over the weekend that his city's fire and police personnel and their families will be transported to cities like Atlanta and Las Vegas for a minimum of five days rest and relaxation. He added that counselors will be on hand to help determine when and whether individual public safety personnel will be available to come back.

Eggert said that planning is currently underway to bring a number of New Orleans firefighters and their families to this area. Eggert said that it will be several days before plans are finalized and official can tell how much housing is available. The need is considerable, he said.

"They have nothing down there," said Eggert of the homeless firefighters.

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