Another media attack on career firefighters had a few fire service tongues a wagging this past week. A college professor’s superficial view of professional career firefighters (and their international union) in a Washington Post opinion piece made my friend Dave Statter’s printers ink blood boil, resulting in a spot on rebuttal.
While Dave’s impassioned response made me feel good, the conversation brought back some dark memories from a time as fire chief when I was publicly challenged by a city appointed citizen’s budget advisory committee to justify what we did and how we did it. The committee was tasked with coming up with creative cost saving ideas for city services at a time when the national and local economy was swirling down the toilet. With the third largest general fund budget, my department was squarely in the cross hairs. While the process was excruciating, it gave me great insight into how political and philosophical views influence perception and acceptance of facts. It also made me regret not signing up for my high school debate team.
Many of the assertions in the Washington Post piece echoed committee statements and questions about my department’s operations. Below are just a few of the many challenge questions asked during this process, and my explanations. See if any of these ring true in your community.
“We don’t have hardly any fires anymore, so why do we need the same number of firefighters and fire trucks?”
True, building fires are much rarer today. Yet, when they do happen their impact is more catastrophic. Fire burns faster, hotter, and produces much deadlier smoke. This means firefighters need to get to the scene quicker and have more capability to attack with much greater force to stand a chance… unless of course property/business owners are willing to pay for installing fast acting fire sprinklers.
“Why don’t we just let the buildings burn? It would be much cheaper to pay the increased insurance premiums for no fire protection than to pay the exorbitant taxes for a service I will likely never need to use.”
(I have to admit, this one floored me)
Numbers may look good penciled out on a spreadsheet-until your property and family/employees are threatened in real time-by fire or other catastrophe. Mankinds innate fear of fire and it’s spectacularly brutal impact will always require we combat it. The concept of firefighting was started by the Romans, and volunteer fire companies were initially created centuries ago by insurance companies to protect subscriber properties. If we reverted to pre-Roman era fire protection I’d wager the insurance companies would charge a lot more than what we pay for public fire protection.
“Why does a fire truck come to my house when I called for an ambulance?”
Actually, that is a really good question. First, most firefighters are also EMS first responders. Our stations are located to provide fast response to the highest risk areas, regardless of the type of emergency. Depending on the situation, our firefighters may respond to your medical emergency in an ambulance kept in the same fire station as their fire engine. This saves wear and tear on expensive fire engines, but adds cost on overall fleet maintenance and upkeep. It also adds “surge” capacity when multiple emergency medical calls occur simultaneously. In life threatening emergencies, medically trained firefighters usually arrive first, and perform lifesaving procedures until higher trained paramedics arrive and take over. The firefighters then support the paramedics as they perform their advanced skills. The more critical the medical situation, the more personnel are necessary in providing this care.
“Many of the adjacent fire departments rely on volunteers. Why do we have to pay for employees when other departments do it with volunteers?”
Surrounding departments are struggling to find and keep volunteers. Today’s volunteer firefighters are now required to meet the same training and certification standards as full time paid firefighters, and respond to a significantly greater number of emergency calls than even 20 years ago; most of them medically related. In addition, today a large segment of the urban-suburban population commutes to work, severely reducing the available pool of potential volunteer candidates at home. The increased number of households with double incomes is also a significant barrier for volunteering. The economic squeeze of the middle class is also a time squeeze.
“Can’t we close Station X? It has the fewest number of calls, so it isn’t as needed as the other fire stations.”
Tell that to Joe and Jane Citizen who live or work there. Typically, fire stations with the fewest number of calls are located in less populated areas. Yet, citizens expect the same level of service regardless of their location within a jurisdiction. Try and take it away, and you will hear about it. Good luck with that…
“How fast are you really? Show us your data.”
BOOM! Here you go…. Here is a square mile map of our city, complete with the location of every single call, identified by call type for the past three years. Furthermore, each square mile section shows the percentage of time the first in engine company or paramedic unit ambulance arrived on scene to critical situations – reported fires or high acuity medical/rescue situations, and also how long it took to get all of the responding resources on scene within eight minutes. As you can see, the densest areas of the city have the best response times. This is because; 1. The calls were located in a smaller geographical area, and 2. There are fire stations located closer together to protect the highest economic value property risk in the city, and provide backup response coverage when the primary unit is not available to respond due to a concurrent call, training, mechanical issues, etc.
The outlying stations have a lower call volume and longer response times because of larger response territory, less density and greater distance from adjacent fire stations.
These are just a small sample of challenging questions I faced as fire chief during the “Great Recession”. While our department had to absorb cuts, we were able to receive support and funding for maintaining our essential fire protection/EMS services and staffing- including our fire code enforcement resources.
But, man did I learn some valuable lessons during this process;
• You better have good response/performance data; geographically analyzed to show any disparities resulting from geography, artifical barriers, stations locations, etc.
• Don’t get emotional or defensive. Explain the facts logically, and in lay person terms (I once used a large paper map and toy fire trucks and ambulances to show how our units respond to various call types).
• Focus on your agency’s core mission, and do it well. Don’t allow special programs to dilute from primary mission delivery; Fire protection, emergency medical services, fire prevention/education and firefighter safety for example.
• Get IN FRONT. Be accessible and engaging. Get out of the station and into the community, and I’m not just talking about fire chiefs. Line firefighters should be out there as well, and not just on IAFF union sponsored activities. My old Executive Fire Officer instructor, Linda Willing, has some great insights on this in a recent fire service article that can be found here.
• Never, ever take public support for granted.
Professor McChesney’s superficial article, and a similar one published in 2002, were nothing more than shots across the bow of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). But, he did the fire service a favor by reminding them of the importance in continually monitoring and analyzing service delivery, keeping an open mind to new service delivery ideas, and maintaining a strong community presence. Do you have any “McChesney’s” in your community?