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Check Please

May 23, 2009

Not long ago, the fire service passed another political milestone as it gathered in Washington, D.C. for the annual Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) dinner.  After more than 20 years, this event has come to symbolize for me the uneasy symbiosis that is today the hallmark of the American fire service.

The politicians who join the crème de la crème of the American fire service for this event have, apart from al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the so-called media elites, come to occupy the most loathsome positions of ill-esteem in the public mind.  Meanwhile, firefighters continue to garner all but unqualified praise from a public wanting for heroes and role models.

Having attended a number of these events myself in their early years, but most humbly and thankfully none recently, I was always struck with wonderment during the proceedings about who needed whom the most.  Politicians are by nature very needy creatures.  But firefighters have in recent years it seems become almost as needy as and only slightly less greedy than the worst of the fat cat pols.

I cannot help but think that the opulent surroundings of the Washington Hilton ballroom and the banquet put on for attendees serve as an apt metaphor for the problems now facing the fire service.

It probably will not strike you as particularly revelatory that no one really attends CFSI dinners for the quality of the food or for that matter the service, although it must be said that the Hilton staff do an admirable job seeing that guests receive their meals while they are still edible and with a minimum of muss or fuss.  The surroundings, though grand, add little to the quality of the experience, in no small measure because you have to pass through a rather rigorous security screening just to get into the room.

It’s safe to say that the quality of the experience does not justify the price you pay for the meal.  That said nobody would reasonably expect it to either.

So what are attendees really paying for?  Well, one might take a hint from the fact that the president’s recent stimulus package – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – included targeted funding for emergency services facilities.  Perhaps more significantly, the Obama Administration’s proposed FY2010 budget seeks a substantial increase in funding for SAFER grants, doubling the authorization from $210 million to $420 million.  All of this and much more comes to the fire service with support from both sides of the aisle, both houses of Congress, and the White House despite the fact that the federal government has no general police power nor constitutionally-mandated role in providing for the safety or security needs of local communities.

Why then is the federal government spending all this money?  First and foremost it does so because it can, but perhaps more importantly it does so because politicians feel they must.  Over the past 20 years, the fire service has asked for and received unprecedented support from the federal government with very little requested of them in return, at least not formally.  These dollars flow like water and taste like wine neither because the well is so deep or pure nor because those tending it have magical powers, but because the pumps are so well oiled.

Is all of this money a good thing, though?  Should fire chiefs, like bank executives and corporate CEOs, be concerned about the strings attached to all this money?  Where you stand on these questions probably depends a lot on where you sit.

Some people sit near the head table and can be fairly certain of getting served sooner rather than later.  Those who’s framing of the issues facing the fire service today cast the problem in black and white terms, or perhaps more accurately red and black terms, see all this green as a good thing.  After all, they reason, the money has to come from somewhere, and if our communities do not have the means, the end itself justifies taking the handout.

I suspect those toward the back of the room, on the other hand, wonder whether they will ever get fed.  What, they ask, will happen when (not if) this largesse suddenly shrinks or even worse disappears altogether.  This does not seem unreasonable given the assumption built into most federal grant programs that they represent a hand-up not a handout.  If they work, or so the logic goes, the need for them should diminish or even disappear over time.

Past experience tells us, though, that neither of these perspectives has proven altogether reasonable over time.  To my knowledge, no one attending the CFSI dinner has ever left unfed.  One might reasonably wonder, though, whether they left satisfied.

We know both the ends and the means matter to our stakeholders, although they rarely receive equal attention at any given point in time.  If they knew they were paying for the meal we enjoy in Washington each spring, they might look at things a bit differently than we do.

For starters, we can assume people care relatively little about the quality of a meal when the price is cheap and the service is good or at least good enough.  Likewise, it seems a pretty safe bet that people probably would not order a prime cut of aged T-bone if all they could afford is chicken-fried steak.  In either case, the patron knows full well that a linen table cloth and silver service do not make the food taste any better.

A good restaurateur understands the importance of balancing the elements of price, quality, and service when offering a dining experience to her customers.  Despite the lack of compelling evidence one way or another, the fire service, largely at the urging of organized labor not their communities, has convinced itself that the quantity and speed of the servers makes the quality of service, and that in turn makes the meal.

All this haste and emphasis on service makes waste though.  To ensure everyone gets fed, the quality of the meal takes a back seat to the speed of service at a CFSI dinner.  As such, I am sure many more meals get made than get eaten, at least by the guests.  No one worries too much about the waste so long as no attendee goes hungry.

Oddly, it is not the unseemly although subtle appearance of gluttony in this event that makes me wince, though it probably should.  Rather, I am increasingly concerned by evidence that we who partake suffer from the far deadlier sin of pride.

Looking around the room during a CFSI dinner, one cannot help but be taken by the impression that the fire service enjoys sharing the spotlight with the Washington hotshots, even if it’s only for one night a year.  The politicians blithely oblige us by offering endless streams of praise, because, of course, that comes naturally to them.  We soak it all up and ask for more, demanding that it come in the form of federal support either as direct financial support or as standards forcing the fiscal hands of our local elected officials.

Over the past several months, the unmistakable timbre of anxiety has become apparent in the growing chorus of voices calling for accountability and restraint from our politicians. We would do well to take heed of this warning.

As the public becomes all too aware of the costs of dining out on their children’s accounts, they have begun to appreciate the wisdom of their own parents, especially those who lived through harder times than we have.  We would do well to heed their advice too and ask one another and our friends in Washington how we can help our communities learn to live within their own means when it comes to delivering fire and emergency services.

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