Hundreds of firefighters who volunteered to help rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina have instead been playing cards and lounging at an Atlanta airport hotel for days while they await orders from federal emergency officials.
"On the news every night you hear [hurricane victims say], `How come everybody forgot us?'" said Joseph Manning, a firefighter from Washington, Pennsylvania "We didn't forget. We're stuck in Atlanta drinking beer."
Tony Russell, the Federal Emergency Management Agency official in charge of the firefighters, said he is trying to get them deployed as fast as he can but wants to make certain they are sent where the need is greatest.
As of Tuesday, some of the firefighters, like Thomas Blomgren of Battle Creek, Michigan, had waited at the hotel for four days. Now he and a colleague have been told they may be sent to a hurricane relief camp in South Carolina to do paperwork.
"FEMA hired the best of the best firefighters, got them together and gave them secretary jobs," Blomgren said.
He and colleague Steven Richardson said they followed FEMA's advice and brought huge packs filled with special firefighting suits, sleeping bags and lifesaving equipment to survive in harsh conditions for as long as a month.
"But we'd be better off bringing pencils and cell phones," Blomgren grumbled.
When FEMA called for 2,000 firefighters from across the country, it made it clear the mission was one of community service and outreach -- not firefighting, Russell said. The firefighters are paid by FEMA for their time.
Desk work may be the first priority for some firefighters for now, but the mission's needs could rapidly change, Russell said. Those who are upset, he said, are free to go. "This is not a draft," he said.
Russell said it takes at least two days to process and train the volunteers, who continue to arrive each day in Atlanta for FEMA training. Some 500 firefighters have been sent to needy areas and hundreds more await their marching orders, he said.