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Downey's memorial in New York was the first chance I'd had to see Paulison since he was selected by President Bush to become the U.S. fire administrator, a senior position with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Although we didn't have a chance to talk after the December 15 service, we did speak last week about Downey, the World Trade Center site, his new job, and his tenure in Miami.
"Everyone knew Ray," says Paulison. "He was a father figure for all of those urban search and rescue guys around the country." Two teams from South Florida went to New York following September 11, and Paulison first visited the site in late fall. "Seeing it in person was unbelievable," he recalls. "The pictures on television don't do it justice, and I have yet to read anybody who can describe it accurately enough to capture the devastation."
The 54-year-old Paulison now oversees the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) in Maryland, which offers specialized training to lieutenants and captains from fire departments around the country on the latest firefighting techniques. The USFA also conducts research to develop new equipment and protective clothing for firefighters. It acts as a clearinghouse for information on fires around the nation and conducts a national fire-safety education campaign aimed at children. In addition the USFA provides more than $100 million in grants every year to poorer fire departments in need of new equipment.
Paulison, who a few years ago was president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, had been a critic of the USFA in the past, arguing that it needed to be led by someone with fire-department experience. When the administrator's position opened last year, Paulison submitted his name. "I don't know how I was selected," he maintains, "but I was happy I was." He was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate this past November 30 and sworn in soon afterward.
A firefighter in Miami-Dade County for 30 years, Paulison became director of the department in June 1992, two months before Hurricane Andrew struck. "That was a fine greeting," he remembers. During his tenure as director, Paulison helped rebuild a department that was unable to keep up with the rapid population growth in South Florida. In addition to covering all the unincorporated areas of the county, Miami-Dade also provides fire protection to 25 municipalities. "We didn't have enough fire stations or personnel, and our response times were horrendous," he admits.
In 1994 Paulison, working with the fire department unions and rank-and-file officers, won voter approval for a $59 million bond issue. It was the only bond issue passed that year. As a result nineteen new fire stations have been built. Paulison also sought grants and money from other sources to update equipment. "Our breathing apparatuses were out of date and didn't meet the minimum qualifications for safety," he says.
Seven years ago the county's Office of Emergency Management, formerly run by Kate "Where's the Cavalry" Hale, was folded into the fire department, allowing for greater coordination and service.
Paulison's years as director, however, were not without problems. One major issue centered on who governs the fire department. There is a Miami-Dade County Board of Fire Commissioners, made up of five elected representatives, but for the life of me I couldn't tell you the names of any of them. Based on the stories I've heard and read (see "As the Fire Board Turns," August 12, 1999), they seem like a group of doddering idiots consumed by their sense of self-importance.
While the fire board can hire and fire the head of the department, the county commission is responsible for allocating the fire department its $200 million annual budget. But since the fire department is still considered a department within the county, the director also answers to the county manager and ultimately to the county mayor.
The result is that the fire board, the county commission, the county manager, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, as well as the city managers and mayors of the 25 cities the fire department serves, all believe they have a right to exert some level of control over the department and its director. "Something needs to change," Paulison deadpans. "They can't continue the way they are going, because the way it is set up now is poor public policy. The line of authority is not clear and it needs to be. My preference is that the department be managed under the auspices of the county manager's office. From a government standpoint that would make the most sense."
Unfortunately efforts over the years to abolish the fire board have failed when presented to the voters. The issue has appeared on ballots when there have been exceptionally low turnouts and the questions have been confusing.
Perhaps the greatest controversy surrounding Paulison's fire department came at the very end of his tenure: the post-9/11 debacle surrounding three black firefighters who supposedly refused to ride on a truck bearing the American flag. Paulison placed the three men on paid leave while an investigation of the matter was conducted. He says he does not regret that decision, believing that if the men had stayed on active duty as the incident generated nationwide publicity, their lives could have been in danger. "I felt that if they were on duty," he says, "there could be some hostile developments."