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Dedication

March 28, 2012

I once thought dedication to duty was the hallmark of public service. especially among public safety professionals. Dedication seems to have taken on a different connotation though these days.

When people speak of dedication to public safety now, it usually refers to the commitment of resources without the need for justification, evaluation or competition. Dedicated resources are preferred. Competition for resources is not. The only thing worse than having to compete for resources is having to prove the resources allocated were spent well.

Fire services, unlike police, often have the luxury of dedicated funds if only because many of them operate outside county or municipal governance under special purpose districts. Most of these districts are funded by ad valorem taxes on real property. Since the beginning of the Great Recession or Great Reset or Whatever We’re Calling It Today — which led to the collapse of home prices — these special purpose fire districts have found their revenues not only constrained but falling for the first time in decades.

Some of these districts have managed to scrape by on reserves accumulated before the crash. Others have raised incremental tax rates to make up for the shortfall. But the revenues available from such quick-fixes and meagre cost-cutting gestures are running out. Now they are looking for alternatives.

The most popular alternative to the labor unions is amalgamation of fire service agencies. Contracting out administration of a fire district is preferable it seems to contracting out firefighting or ambulance transport services because it doesn’t affect bargaining unit members.

Union advocates of mergers and consolidations tell anyone who will listen that such moves will achieve scope and scale economies for citizens who will benefit from maintenance of existing staffing levels and response times. The experience of jurisdictions that have actually gone through the merger or consolidation process tells a different story.

Most combined fire service agencies achieve little economic benefit in the short-term. In fact, they often see short-term cost increases as the affected organizations struggle with integration (sound familiar, DHS?). Just as the turbulence begins to give way, these organizations often see the increased influence of combined bargaining units and new demands on the organization make it more difficult to settle labor agreements without experiencing increased operating costs. In the end, the best most combined fire agencies can achieve is reducing the rate of growth in their expenditures, which buys them time before the need for another reorganization.

It’s overly simplistic to assume that either the economy or the unions are to blame for this situation. Clearly, both parties played their parts. Elected officials and many administrators acted out supporting roles along the way too.

Cities and counties have been struggling with these problems for a bit longer. The power of the fire department to play on emotions for its share of the budget pie has been consistently and credibly eroded. Fire incidents and deaths are down. But the costs of providing fire service keep going up. Efforts to demonstrate any credible relationship or correlation between fire service inputs and fire outcomes has proven consistently elusive. Paying more for fire service does not generate better outcomes, especially when most of the increased cost goes into pay and benefits for employees who live outside the locales they protect.

In this context, merging municipal fire departments with fire districts often does little to improve the quality of fire service for either entity even when it secures the jobs of firefighters. More often than not, cities use resources from adjacent suburban and ex urban areas to prop up service delivery in the urban core. Competition among municipal departments for scarce city revenues makes it difficult if not impossible to balance the books so both cities and adjacent ex urban areas support their own weight despite any efficiencies achieved through joint oversight.

Scholarly studies of the situation paint conflicting pictures. Two impressive exposés on the effects of fire service cutbacks in New York City in the late 1960s and 1970s do demonstrate, however, what happens when cutbacks send a clear signal to the community that its protection is no longer a priority of government. In The Fires, Joe Flood chronicles the effects of the RAND Fire Project on urban policy. Flood paints a sympathetic picture of firefighters and the victims of urban blight. Although he would have readers believe that the effects of disinvestment in fire services were bad for cities, his analysis suggests a gradual shift in focus from services to outcomes led to better building codes and more attention to land use patterns that produced many other benefits.

An earlier work by Deborah Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses, presents compelling evidence that this withdrawal of urban fire services from the South Bronx and other neighborhoods under Mayor Lindsey sparked an underclass diaspora that spread drug abuse, crime and communicable disease across the city, if not the country. Wallace’s account is grounded not in sociology or urban policy, but rather public health and epidemiology. Clearly, forcibly uprooting and transplanting an entrenched urban underclass proved misguided and disruptive for both communities — those displaced and those receiving them. But the effects of these changes on fire service are less clearcut.

If the case for not cutting fire services seems clear enough — it can produce severe unintended consequences, consider three other scholarly efforts that look more closely at the fire service itself. The first, Crucible of Fire by Bruce Hensler suggests the form and function of today’s urban fire services is more the reflection of firefighters’ influence upon their service than the imprint of the urban environment and its demands upon them. Like their brothers and sisters-in-arms, firefighters it seems are always fighting the last war. In contrast, two other efforts, Eating Smoke by Mark Tebeau, and The Fireproof Building by Sara Wermiel, suggest that most of the credit for improvements in urban fire safety should go to engineers and fire insurance underwriters, not firefighters.

Social and political activism among firefighters is not new. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that accumulating and exercising social and political influence was always one of the primary purposes of these organizations. In Cause for Alarm, Amy Greenberg, follows this thread backwards several decades and illustrates how placing fire services under municipal governance was intended to curb rampant abuses of process and power. Alas, as we see today, these efforts have ultimately proved futile.

As I write this, the International Association of Fire Fighters is holding its legislative action conference in Washington, D.C. At the opening plenary session, IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said it as clearly as anyone could. Commenting on the union’s political priorities following last year’s efforts by governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana to repeal collective bargain rights for public employees, “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” He equated the effort to defend public employees from attack by politicians to a fight for the very survival of the middle-class. A parade of speakers, including politicians, political activists and union leaders followed to reinforce the message: Firefighters must be active politically to prevent further erosion of pay and benefits.

If this is the litmus test for fire service political support, then I can see why we have a problem. Looking at the problem critically and considering the evidence for and against continued investments in fire service based upon past precedents is not an option. Firefighters will tell you they already know the right answer, they don’t need more evidence much less debate. (See a recent blog post by former deputy fire chief, lawyer and physician’s assistant John K. Murphy for example.)

These days, it seems, firefighters are dedicated to putting whatever effort is required into protecting their jobs, pay and benefits. We can only hope citizens and elected officials are equally dedicated to constructively shaping public priorities to reflect their interests in efficiency and accountability.

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