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.