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Boston Globe Strikes Again

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Boy, I bet Boston firefighters are fuming right ‘bout now.  A few days ago the Boston Globe wrote an investigative piece titled “Plenty of firefighters but where are the fires?” The article asked pointed questions, challenging the centuries old notion of fire protection in the United States, and Boston in particular.  This article is hot on the heels of another recent Globe article detailing the demise of a previous Boston fire chief, someone who was hired from the outside, who was essentially run out of town on a rail by his senior staff.  It doesn’t appear the Globe is letting up on the BFD anytime soon.

The United States fire service is in the middle of an identity crisis.  The Globe correctly pointed out statistics showing the drastic decline in the number of fires, not just in Boston, but around the country (except maybe in Detroit…). Modern building codes, mandatory sprinkler system legislation, decreasing use of cigarettes and modern heating systems receive most of the credit for this trend.

At the same time, due to us aging baby boomers, collapse of public social health programs and out of control health insurance costs the number of responses to emergency (and non-emergent) medical situations has skyrocketed.  Who is picking up this slack?  Yep, fire departments.  And guess what?  Even with the support and encouragement of the IAFF and the IAFC in expanding fire based EMS programs, some firefighters and departments are reluctant to do this work.  They need to read the Boston Globe…

Yes, our fire service has an identity crisis.  “Fire Service”, “Fire Department”, “Fire Districts” and “Firefighters” are now misnomers given the scope, breadth and priorities of the investment and work performed. But, firefighters closely protect their traditions, identity and hero perception.  Why?  Because; 1. It helps them do their jobs.  As long as they hold the public trust, they can work unimpeded when citizens are most vulnerable. 2. Fire’s specter unleashes a visceral response.  Most people are afraid, yet fascinated by fire, a fascination easily translated into admiration and support (including financial) of those who confront and try to control it. 3. A long-standing tradition of brotherhood (and sisterhood), teamwork and sacrifice for the public good.  Honoring and maintaining these traditions helps provide a level of comfort and expectation of support among teammates when confronting dynamic and dangerous situations.

As the Globe pointed out there are those who believe today’s fire service is no longer relevant or needed, and some of them are in my own community.  Let me give you an example. A few years ago my mayor commissioned a citizen’s budget advisory board, tasking them with reviewing and prioritizing city services.  It did not take them long to target my high cost department.  One member’s naivety was revealed as he repeatedly stated the fire department of today is redundant, as most people have fire insurance and can simply rebuild their homes and replace their lost valuables.

At first I did not know how to respond.  I have never had to confront such simplistic thinking expressed so publicly. I took my time in forming a thoughtful response, creating a series of statements to address his superficial statements and the ideological motivation behind it (exorbitant public employee salaries and government waste);

  • We are not just a fire department. We are an all hazards response agency.
  •  EMS is our primary-and most important-response activity, and the more critical the medical situation the more people it takes to manage it. (I told them to watch an episode of ER or reality hospital show to see how many people it takes to treat a critical patient)
  • Fighting a simple house fire takes a minimum of 14 people to keep our employees safe while quickly suppressing the fire.
  •  The busier our crews are in responding to calls, the more cost effective they are, up to a point.  Finding that balance of maintaining response readiness and being available to respond is part art, part science.
  • Privatizing EMS and fire services is an option.  But, it won’t negate or replace the need to have a fire department. It just makes it less cost effective.
  • Insurance won’t replace invaluable lives, pain and suffering or irreplaceable objects. We are in the life preservation business.
  • Relying on insurance to pay for fire loss without any efforts to contain, control and extinguish fires would likely result in skyrocketing fire insurance rates and inability to secure coverage.
  • Fire doesn’t discriminate.  It doesn’t care where it started. It’s going to go wherever it wants until someone-or something- stops it.  Conflagrations still happen, and have a devastating long-term impact on a community.
  • The FLSA 7K exemption was adopted for a reason. One employee working a 24 hour shift is cheaper than 3 employees working 8 hour shifts, especially when you factor in the medical benefits.
  • Under current federal law, firefighters, firefighter/paramedics and law enforcement officers can have a work schedule greater than 40 hours per week and not receive overtime. Everyone else, except exempt employees must receive overtime for work over 40 hours per week.
  • Firefighters and police officers work overtime shifts mostly to maintain minimum response staffing levels.  The two primary ways to reduce the need for this coverage is by hiring more people or reducing minimum staffing levels.
  • Reducing staffing levels based on the statistical number of incidents at any given time during a 24 hour period is nothing more than governmental gambling.
  • Our firefighters respond to EMS calls primarily on the ambulance assigned to their station. It saves wear and tear on our high value vehicles. With that said, it also increases the overall number of vehicles and increases fleet maintenance costs.

Many of the points above are germane to the points raised in the Globe article.  I hope BFD’s leadership well as they address this most recent public challenge.  There will ALWAYS be a need for strategically positioned firefighters (or whatever else you think they should be called), ready and adequately equipped to make bad problems go away.  By the way, I think the term “firefighter” should stay.  I’ll always be old school.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • http://www.agincourt.us gbaron

    Great comments Bill. Watch out, you may find yourself a fire chief again, this time maybe in Boston!

  • http://gravatar.com/chubbm Mark

    Bill, I have a hard time seeing the Boston Globe or the growing chorus of voices in the media and the public as the villains here. Likewise, the fire service should resist the temptation to see itself as the victim.

    This is an important discussion we clearly need to have. What kind of community do we want to live and what role do we expect government to play in promoting or achieving that vision?

    Sometimes, I fear, the fire service sees itself apart from government, and blames government in general, not just elected officials in particular, for their presumed plight. This oversimplification clearly short-circuits the more thoughtful approach our success achieving reduced fire losses requires.

    My sympathy for the Boston Fire Department is pretty slim to start with. The mob action that forced out Chief Abraira strikes is all the more evidence that the situation there deserves even more scrutiny than the situation confronting the fire service as a whole. As such, I am reluctant to read too much into the Globe’s attention to Boston or its ability to influence much less resolve the debate we need to have among ourselves.

    As for your citizen’s question, I too have heard similar arguments. Rather than defending the status quo, I found the suggestion an opportunity to explore other ways we could address the community’s expectations more efficiently. People like him remain the minority, but they do have a valid point. In some, perhaps even many, cases, it would be cheaper and more productive for us to socialize the losses and help people rebuild rather than provide the illusion of protection.

    That said, I still think we have an important role to play when it comes to showing people that the community and its government cares for everyone, especially the most vulnerable members of our society. That probably makes me a bleeding-heart, but so be it.

    • Brian Wilkie

      “illusion of protection”…. can you explain this statement please?

    • Phill jolley

      How is putting out fires in people’s homes, an illusion of protection ? Or performing CPR or other lifesaving measures on your spouse or child? Or getting the folks in Colorado out if thier cars when they have driven their cars into the water ? Or a thousand other things that fire depts do every day?

  • Mike Love

    Good stuff Bill.

    The fire service has never been one to crawl in its shell and hide (for long). There will always be that next crisis that no other city entity is prepared to deal with. Not five months ago Boston was brutally attacked killing and injuring residents and visitors. Take tally of how much of a role the fire department played in mitigating that mess. Yes the criticism stings but I think it’s a good thing to embrace criticism and use it as an opportunity to reflect and accept critique that was useful, and explain what is misunderstood. We know there are many departments that don’t take full advantage of building and sustaining their relationship with the community. If they don’t it just increases opportunity for misunderstanding and lack of support. I would like to offer to those departments that are looking to engage and turn around this criticism a free community advocacy tool kit from Vision 20/20. Vision 20/20 is a project started by fire service leaders to find ways to fill the gaps in fire loss prevention. The work of the Vision 20/20 has been funded under FEMA AFG grants and support from other private organizations. I mentioned the free community advocacy toolkit. The toolkit, while developed to build support for fire prevention, will work for any purpose where you need to build support and advocacy for a community effort. Fire departments need to be involved with all levels of the community or they will be misunderstood and thought irrelevant, no matter how important the mission is. So the department must seek out the advocacy and support. The toolkit offers tons of effective guidelines and advice on how to go about building your credibility. To find the toolkit go to. http://www.strategicfire.org/advocacytoolkit/

    I would also like to recommend that a fire department could begin almost immediately to build a relationship with residents by engaging in the process of all hazards Community Risk Reduction (CRR). CRR generally means in-service home visits by the operations crews offering free home safety information especially smoke alarm installation. It is hard to criticize a department that visits the homes and for the purpose of making them safer. The Vision 20/20 web site has information on how to start a CRR process and right now there is even remaining but limited opportunity for Vision 20/20 to offer a free workshop on-site to introduce fire departments to the concept. http://www.strategicfire.org

    Fire departments that stand on the sidelines will continue to be marginalized by big mouths that don’t know what they are talking about. Join in the fight and take charge of the department’s success by engaging in the community. Thanks again Bill for a blog promoting leadership.

  • Bigjim

    “Illusion of Protection” may be something like:

    1. A fire truck arriving at a well involved house with staffing of two. It’s a fire truck all right, it just can’t do much very effectively.
    2. Six rigs showing up from a fire department. With one FF on a rig. (Been there, so yes it happens)
    3. Personnel showing up on bid red rigs with little or no training or certification. And they don’t have to be volunteers. Just watch some of the arrival videos that are posted on line.
    4. I know of two careers that sometimes deliver service a little too late. One is embalming; “he looks so good in there”, but of course “he” is dead. And firefighting. We were here, but the joint still burned down.
    5. The troops always tell the community of they don’t have the new expensive truck that citizens will actually die in the streets. Check any news report on a department mill or tax levy request. Happens all the time. A district near me just did it. I’ve lived here 21 years, can’t remember the last fatal fire in a house because the FD was underfunded. I have seen those same funds mismanaged. There is a district that has an area of $1M+ homes without hydrants. Guess how many tankers they have? (0) And those people think they are getting quality fire protection.
    6. I have been to many fires where the arrival of the FD had absolutely no effect on the outcome. The building burned to the ground anyway. We would have saved effort, water and time if we had just let it burn to the ground. As it was it took us just under 24 hours to burn it down. Without our (FD) interference it would have burned down in three hours.
    7. People don’t get to vote on the quality of there fire protection. They call, the FD shows up. No one said they had to be good at the job.

  • Valerie

    As someone who splits my time between Massachusetts and Florida, I knew Chief Abraira from his time in Palm Bay and was very excited for Boston as I had seen his and the fire fighters of Palm Bat response to a number of fires and emergency responses. Unfortunately it just shows that it’s very difficult for someone other then a “good ole boy who won’t change how we’ve been doing things all these years” to make it up here in New England/Northeast. I learned this lesson firsthand as I was 1/3 of the Board of Fire Commissioner’s who were fired because we wouldn’t play along with what some of the firefighters or selectmen wanted. We bought our Chief some time but he too eventually decided that resigning was in his and his family’s best interest. He was one of the best and it’s a loss many in my Massachusetts town don’t understand.

  • Jim O’Neill

    I agree Valerie….. I think he would have done one hell of a job if they had let him.

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.