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Love Is Not Enough

February 15, 2012

You may have noticed that I have become a bit less regular about posting in my usual Wednesday slot of late. This reflects the combined effect of having too few cogent ideas about what to say and too little spare time to reflect on expanding the list.

The shortage of time arises largely from the demands of my day job as a local fire chief. If you ask the firefighters who work for me, they would probably tell you that the lack of cogent ideas is also closely connected to the job. As they like to tell me, CHAOS stands for Chief Has Arrived On Scene.

I’d like to think I am just as capable of coming up with something insightful and useful to say as I ever was. But that may be less true than I would like to admit.

Lately, the nasty issues swirling around me in my day job have come attached to people with equally nasty attitudes. People in local government are feeling very fearful and stressed about the future of their jobs. Although I would like to reassure them that things will turn out alright, they wouldn’t believe me even if it was true. And it may not be.

The little fire district I work for grew up too quickly. Now a fully-paid, career fire and rescue service employing almost 70 people, it was a volunteer outfit composed of civic-minded citizens for much of its existence. The real change began in the 1980s and 1990s when property values started to climb and development intensified. A municipal incorporation formalized governance of a part of the district, but much of it remains unincorporated even today. As the district took on paid employees, they gradually displaced the volunteers. Union representation of these employees means constant vigilance for evidence of skimming work, which means volunteers will probably never return.

Instead, the represented employees seem most likely to either work themselves out of a job or drive their employer to insolvency. It should be clear enough without much effort or thought that the first option is not terribly likely. The alternative may be on the horizon, but efforts to delay the inevitable reckoning have worked so well so far that few people believe it is actually possible.

A careful examination of how this has come to pass is pretty informative. First, firefighters have been incredibly effective at making themselves look busy, if not useful. An ever decreasing fraction of their work involves fighting or preventing fires. Factors beyond their control or ken have seen to it that this work is less necessary now than ever. Emergency medical calls and a host of other responses have filled the void left by decreasing fire activity, and now occupy 70 to 80 percent of fire service workload. The skills required to perform many of these new roles take hundreds of hours to acquire and maintain even when they are rarely used or tested.

This has made firefighters seem indispensable, which brings me to my second observation. When I was a kid, firefighters were respected, but not really revered. There was rarely a long line of applicants competing for jobs in the fire department. The work was dirty, hard, poorly paid and involved impossibly long hours. (And this remains the case in many other countries.) That changed quickly here starting in the 1970s. Today, firefighters in my community like many others earn salaries far above the median household income. And we work for a reasonably well-off community, so that’s saying something. You don’t have to look hard for evidence of how well-paid our firefighters are. The parking lot tells quite a tale, as my wife’s unemployed city planner friends have remarked on more than one occasion.

Unlike the volunteers they replaced, few of the firefighters in my agency live in the community they protect. A few live more than 100 miles away. The 48-hour work schedule accommodates this, and few demands beyond attending calls, training and performing routine maintenance means such long shifts present few hazards. Despite their unusual work schedules, firefighters in my agency get ample time-off. Our average employee works just a little more than 42 hours per week after vacation, holidays and other time adjustments.

By making themselves available to handle almost anything anyone might think to throw at them, firefighters have managed to do what no other public servants have yet accomplished: While much of the public loathes government, citizens love firefighters and rarely think of them as government employees. In fact, many people have no idea that the people protecting them are paid, much less paid well. Many people seem genuinely surprised when they learn that the firefighters work around the clock.

How could this have escaped their attention? Easily it turns out.

This brings me to my last observation: Firefighters show up. Always.

With all due respect to my friends the police, this is not true even of other emergency services. We have become so accustomed to waiting for service and not getting what we really want when it does arrive that we are genuinely surprised and generally delighted when someone responds at all.

Because firefighters have taken it upon themselves to be indispensable, they almost always look busy. Even when they aren’t particularly effective.

Truth is, we aren’t much more effective at putting out fires than we were right after they replaced the horses with motorized fire engines. Even now, if a fire gets a good enough head-start in any building, we will always play catch-up, which means waiting for the fire to consume enough fuel and get small enough again that we can put it out with the water and personnel available. Sometimes, I think the more overmatched we are, the more overwhelmed we look, the more impressed people are with our performance.

Fires don’t much care whether we have a good attitude or a bad one. When firefighting was all we did, I knew a lot of firefighters you wouldn’t want to take out in public. With the advent of emergency medical service, we have had to emphasize the soft-side. Firefighters these days are experts at displaying empathy. As such, they endear themselves to almost everyone they encounter. In the small number of instances where this does not happen, the other party often comes across worse, so firefighters can get a free pass even when they might not deserve one.

All of this may seem pretty cynical. And it probably is. People may love firefighters, but this economy has meant giving up a lot of other things we love. If firefighters become too expensive, they too shall pass. And their lack of strong connections in the communities they serve will be what decides their fate.

This should concern homeland security professionals if only because they too have come to depend on firefighters’ willingness to take on added jobs. If not firefighters, then to whom shall we turn to protect our communities?

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