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Firefighters in the Sights

January 2, 2013

This post was published today at Fire Chief magazine’s website in their Mutual Aid blog. I extend thanks to Janet Wilmoth, Mary Rose Roberts and Lisa Allegretti for sharing this piece with their readers …

The fire service made the national news twice over the holidays, one story garnering much more attention than the other.

On Monday, Dec. 24, a gunman lay in wait and fired on first responders as they arrived to attack a fire he set in West Webster, N.Y. Two volunteer firefighters were killed and two others seriously injured. The gunman later killed himself. Fire investigators found the remains of the killer’s sister, also shot to death, in the burned out house.

Two days later, NPR’s Morning Edition aired a story from its Planet Money Team about the closing of four Contra Costa County (Calif.) fire stations after a funding measure failed to pass. The program described the fiscal mess that led to the referendum and the animus towards taxes and career firefighters emerging in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

The fact that the first story garnered much more attention in the popular press is not too surprising. It resonates on several levels, especially in the aftermath of the Shady Hook Elementary tragedy a little more than a week earlier.

What surprises me is the fact that we in the fire service are not paying much attention to the second story and others like it occurring in many other places. In fact, we are just as mesmerized by the tragedies in Newtown and West Webster as the general public, despite our knowledge that such incidents are outliers.

The verdict on firefighters in Contra Costa County presented by NPR is not an outlier or isolated event. The circumstances that led voters to turn on their protectors follow precedents all too familiar to firefighters across the country (and for that matter around the world). Nevertheless, our unwillingness to confront these circumstances with either realism or reinvention has made the outcome we see there all the more certain to follow us home as well.

Having the temerity to bring this situation up is itself considered an act of disloyalty by many. Firefighters stick together, they will tell you. We don’t turn our backs on one another, say others. Contracts are commitments; all nod in unison. The community owes us.

You had me right up to that last statement. The community owes us nothing. That’s why we call it public service.

Many critics have firefighters and the fire service itself in their sights. And we are coming under fire for good reason. Times have changed, and the fire service has not kept up. It’s not that we cannot change. We possess remarkable strengths and skills when it comes to adaptation, flexibility and resourcefulness. It’s that we choose not to change when change involves loss. And no loss means more to us than loss of control.

Here’s the surprising part to me: Firefighters fear nothing more than the prospect of losing their status as public idols — we like to remind everyone we are the most respected and trusted profession. We have no control over this, however. Our image is completely intangible and ephemeral. It has no real or lasting value. Few if any in the fire service will acknowledge they harbor any particular anxiety over this. It seems they prefer denial or at least the denial of plausibility to acknowledging, accepting, adapting and, when necessary, atoning for the sins of excess exciting public outrage.

We need to ask ourselves though, “What’s really at stake if we don’t face the facts?” From where I sit, everything is on the line.

We can only maintain control of our destiny by accepting responsibility for earning and retaining the public trust. This trust depends not just on how well we perform our duties, but also on how well we manage the costs and benefits of doing so. We can accomplish much more in partnership with the community than we can in conflict with it.

Here’s a quick test: How much time do your firefighters spend actively engaged with organized groups of citizens that does not involve either incident response or passive activities like requests for station tours and demonstrations? If your agency is not meeting people where they are on issues of importance to them, it’s no wonder they have little time for issues importance to you.

The most resilient and resourceful communities during times of crisis and tragedy are those that invest the most energy and effort in building strong social ties. These ties form not just around geography but issues of mutual benefit and concern. What communities may lack in wealth they can more than make up for in good will and the willingness to lend a hand to others in need. And it is easier to help when you share common interests but different yet complementary resources and skills. What efforts does your department make to leverage these impulses? If your answer is like most, then you now have a pretty good idea where the problem lies.

As long as most fire departments expend several times more maintaining their speed and strength of response than their communities lose annually in fire damage, we will have a credibility problem. As long as we fail to distinguish efficiency from productivity and double down on looking busy instead of promoting stronger, safer communities, we will have a credibility problem. As long as we defend a system of pay and benefits disconnected from the fiscal realities of our communities, their crumbling infrastructure and the failing labor markets driving down property values and sales tax revenues, we will have a credibility problem.

Bringing federal grants to our communities will not solve the credibility problem. It will only displace other federal investments in infrastructure, education and long-range planning for sustainability that most communities desperately need to pursue.

As long as we have a credibility problem, fire service budgets and firefighter jobs and lives will be at risk. But not so much from crazed gunmen or the more routine dangers of fighting fires themselves. No, these risks pale in comparison to the losses we face as we burn the bridges connecting us to the public we serve and the dollars needed to repair or replace our aging civic and civil infrastructures.

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