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Not So Fast

April 18, 2012

At the urging of fellow HLSwatch blogger Arnold Bogis, I’ve spent a little while this week reflecting on my unease about certain aspects of the FEMA Whole Community approach to disaster preparedness and community resilience. That’s proven quite difficult for me in one sense because I am generally in agreement that planning requires a lot more community engagement than we usually afford it.

Done well, community engagement contributes to resilience by encouraging the exchange of information and sharing of resources before a disaster, which builds relationships that not only endure in times of crisis but bolster our natural inclination to connect with others in need. That said, something about the whole community approach has always stuck in my craw.

Before I get to that though, I’d like to emphasize what I think works best about the whole community approach. First, it acknowledges that cities, disasters and efforts to make cities more resilient are all complex things in their own right. (This should not be taken to mean that rural areas or small towns are any less complex. They can be even more so, just in other ways.) Second, it acknowledges that improving community resilience begins by acknowledging and strengthening what people are already doing and what already works. And, third, it embraces the idea of bringing new individuals and groups into the discussion rather than relying on the expertise of those already interested. Doing so begins by meeting people and groups where they are instead of drawing them to us.

For too long, emergency management relied upon the old adage that “the world is run by those who show up.” If you were present then you were the right one to write the plan simply because you showed up and by doing so showed an interest. The unspoken assumption in all of this is that anyone interested enough to show up for the boring bits — plan writing and preparedness — can be relied upon for the difficult parts — response and recovery.

Sadly, this explains a lot of the dysfunction we see in emergency management. Too many of those who show up do so because they have a vested interest in seizing opportunities to show off their expertise or personal experience of having not been prepared. Consequently, they come to the task imbued with the white-hot intensity characteristic of the zeal of the newly converted.

This tendency leads to another problem that I think traditional approaches not only share in common with the whole community approach, but that FEMA may be taking to a whole new and unwelcome level. That is the notion that emergency planning and preparedness should be a “go big or go home” enterprise.

The coincident emphasis at FEMA on catastrophic risk planning — aka, Maximum-of-Maximums — strikes me as off-putting if not alienating. For starters, I am neither convinced you can adequately plan or prepare for catastrophic events nor compelled by experience to believe that it does that much more good than simply encouraging other forms of community engagement with efforts to address lesser hazards. “It might be true that many hands make light work,” but who will join an effort to plan for what seems to many nothing short of “the end of the world as we know it.”

We do our communities a disservice, particularly in light of the good work many are already doing to forge stronger social ties and renew the infrastructure of civic life if we ask people to imagine a world in which the fruits or their labors are left in shambles. If we are truly committed to the first three principles I mentioned — working with complexity, acknowledging what works and meeting people where they are — it seems to me that a genuine effort to engage the whole community would not start by asking people to imagine and plan for the worst.

I am willing to admit that “everything can change in the blink of an eye,” but I also know that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Writing good plans, just like building great cities and strong relationships takes time.

Emergency managers and public safety officials tend to think in short times frames, often too short. This is emotionally appealing, but often leads us to stop short when it comes to considering others’ points of view, especially when they run counter to conventional wisdom.

Time is of the essence when working to save lives, but disaster planning and community resilience are about saving whole communities. As such, they take more time than most officials are willing to give them.

This tendency to get in a great big hurry not only compromises efforts to get people involved and get the best out of them while they’re engaged, it also tends to suggest to them that response and recovery should be done at double quick-time too. This, of course, leads to all sorts of insidious problems, not the least of which is the “ready, fire, aim” mentality that overtakes many elected officials in times of crisis.

Instead of agitating by aphorism and pedaling platitudes, emergency managers should take the time to get to know their community in new ways. Take it slowly. Learn what people value. Listen to what they know. Ask what they need. Hear what they want. Then sit down and discuss how these things shape the two elements essential to any form of resilience: what we believe and what we are prepared to do.

A Different Analogy

April 5, 2012

Recently, several people have suggested to me that the relationship between managers, employee representatives and an agency’s governing body is like a three-legged stool. All three legs must be equal and sturdy to support the weight of the organization.

I find this analogy flawed for several reasons. Just for starters, the reason for making a stool with three legs instead of four is so it can function effectively on an uneven surface. This does not require all three legs to be of equal length provided the stool is properly positioned. Beyond a certain point, it doesn’t matter whether all the legs are equally sturdy provided they are each strong enough to support their share of the weight.

As I have reflected on my qualms about the three-legged stool, it occurred to me that a ladder presents a far more useful metaphor of organizational form and function. At a minimum, a ladder serves as a means of getting somewhere, whether its out of a hole or reaching new heights.

Stools are much better suited to sitting than standing or climbing upon. A stool is not meant to advance one’s reach. Indeed, it often does just the opposite. Clearly, using even a very sturdy and stable stool for reaching objects at height is risky.

In contrast, a ladder is purpose-built for climbing. The parallel and hinged side rails stand upon sturdy braces at the bottom to prevent them from sinking or slipping. The rails also provide a stable grip for advancing from one rung to the next. Braces support the rungs. And the spreader and locks secure the rails and prevent the ladder from collapsing. Under certain circumstances a ladder can also be used as a bridge.

The elements of a typical ladder have been honed to perform specific functions. The side rails of a ladder could be said to represent the governing body and its executive team. The braces supporting the rails’ base are the organization’s strategic plan and budget. The braces supporting each rung represent procedures and practices that guide individual decisions and actions. The surface supporting the ladder is the agency’s public mandate and its slope and firmness reflect the degree of public confidence and trust it enjoys in the community. The rungs are the various resources needed to advance the organization’s efforts to serve the community, including financial, human and physical capital. The spreader and locks are the collective bargaining agreement and policies adopted to manage the agency’s activities and business processes.

Most organizations these days need a ladder much more urgently than they need a stool. Given a stool, most of us are all too likely to sit around and think or talk ourselves into bigger, albeit different, problems than we have now. Given a ladder we can climb out of the hole we have dug for ourselves by minding our particular roles and doing them well. With proper placement and use, we can use the ladder to overcome obstacles or scale new heights.

A good tradesperson understands the importance of maintaining and inspecting a ladder regularly if we want to ensure it will do its job for us properly. Using a ladder properly requires more training and discipline than using a stool. Both pieces of equipment serve a purpose, but only one of them can help us reach new heights safely.

Fight or Switch

April 2, 2012

In 1970, before Watergate, the United States’ humiliating exit from Vietnam, the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the steady decline of public confidence in government ever since, Albert O. Hirschman wrote a uniquely influential analysis of participation in democratic institutions facing decline. Exit, Voice and Loyalty became required reading for students of politics, public administration and civic engagement.

Hirschman’s book addresses the fundamental questions facing individuals and organizations in crisis: Should I stay or go? Can I still make a difference? How best do I serve the interests of the truth? At some time or other, each of us faces these or similar questions. The answers to our questions do not lie in what is popular or what others would do in our place or what would make ourselves or others happy.

Doing the right thing requires dedication to the truth and often requires us to take actions others consider desperate, difficult, dangerous or even despicable. It means making a choice between giving in, speaking up or getting out. And the decisions we make say as much about the organization and its future as it does about our ability to influence its course.

Hirschman suggests that an individual’s loyalty to an organization increases in direct proportion to the entry costs. The harder it is to join an organization, the harder it is for any individual to change it.

Individuals confronted with an unsatisfactory situation can express their loyalty either by speaking up or getting out. Both courses of action have their costs.

Those who speak up risk the ire of colleagues convinced they alone know what is right for the organization. Those in the majority often have good reasons to assume their might makes right, as more often than not they have access to institutional advantages that afford them an ability to bring pressure to bear on those who disagree with the apparent or desired consensus.

Those who get out signal to others the need for change by jumping ship. This serves to reinforce the undesirability of staying the course and is intended to suggest that loyalty to the group operates in direct opposition to the more important and respectable loyalty to principles, purpose or ideals.

Challenging the status quo is always unpopular, which only partly explains why it’s so difficult. As I already indicated, the majority is more committed to being right than doing right, and is rarely afraid to exact a price from anyone that places loyalty to ideas above loyalty to them.

On Monday night, I watched as a valued colleague publicly resigned his position. He concluded that efforts to change the situation from the inside were “futile.” Leaving relieves him of the burden of group loyalty and conformity with the status quo.

Those of us left behind must now examine our relationship not only to him but also to the organization he helped build and lead. As I searched the expressions of others for signs of what may come, I saw many smiling in apparent glee at what they surely see as a victory. Others’ dismay and concern showed as their expressions grew blank and their gazes dropped.

Only time will tell whether others see this event as encouragement to speak up or get out. But once the exodus begins it’s often hard to stop.

It’s worth noting, organizations that encourage consensus through compelled conformity become increasingly detached from the reality of their circumstances. Convinced of their own rectitude, they suppress that which cannot be ignored until constructive conflict, creativity and genuine collaboration all but vanish. In contrast, organizations that not only tolerate dissent but actively encourage and engage diverse perspectives experience renewal in spite of all the rough-and-tumble they experience.

As I wait to see what the future will bring, I am reminded that people can leave by doing what my colleague did (getting up and going) or by staying where they are and simply giving up. Sadly, many of my colleagues have already concluded the latter option is their only viable recourse.

As for me, I’d rather fight than switch. But then again, everyone has their limits.


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.

Brothers and Others

March 14, 2012

Does anyone else find it ironic that cops and firefighters (but firefighters especially) refer to themselves as “brothers”, when this term connotes something very different and entirely sinister when applied to government and its officials by the general public?

George Orwell’s Big Brother in the dystopian novel 1984 was an intimidating and invasive presence in the lives of people deprived of freewill. Nevertheless, cops and firefighters see brotherhood and its virtues as practically unrivaled. Loyalty to many is the essence of integrity because it defines consistency of action with respect to one’s peers.

Consider this conception of integrity in contrast to the values of equity or justice, which to most of us demands consistency of action with respect to others – in essence requiring us to treat others as we would our brothers. Cops and firefighters use the concept of brotherhood to exclude, not include, others.

The other is humankind’s oldest device for defining and projecting the presence of evil in the world. As Elaine Pagels’ groundbreaking scholarship on The Origin of Satan makes clear, the essence of evil is fear. We see “evil” in others in direct proportion to the “self” we see in others. Evil reflects our fear of embracing, if not becoming, that which destroys our current sense of self.

This is the point at which I find the tendency of cops and firefighters to rely on the notion of brotherhood begins to diverge as well as unravel. In both instances, it is brothers who provide the primary defense against the other. But in the case of cops, it is the very existence of others that defines brotherhood, for we would not need cops if it not for the presence of evil in others. But firefighters oppose a different foe. To be sure, fire can produce evil effects, but it also is a great source of good when properly harnessed. Those affected by fire as well as those who fail to keep its power under proper control are both seen not as villains but rather as victims. Why then should firefighters see a need for protection against those who call upon their services?

Firefighters seem to cling to the concept of brotherhood even more fiercely than most cops. Who then is the other whom firefighters fear? What’s going on here?

Most firefighters I talk with take a paternalistic perspective when referring to their relationship with the public. To many of them, the public is a body of people who want or need services they cannot anticipate, do not fully appreciate and cannot understand, which makes it the responsibility of fire service leaders to inform (read this as “educate” or “convince”) the public about their need for or dependence upon firefighters. A good fire chief, then, is someone who stands up for firefighters against the public, and who convinces them to give firefighters what they want.

This perspective has made me a “bad” fire chief and a traitor akin to Judas Iscariot in the eyes of many firefighters. What I find peculiar is not that they believe this but that they do not see in others, much less me, a figure more like that of the Apostle Thomas.

I have sat through many meetings lately where articles of faith in respect of fire service delivery are defended as reasonable despite the utter lack of objective evidence to support them. I consider myself a skeptic about most things, but most especially about the virtues of a notional brotherhood that conditions acceptance on adherence to articles of faith about things like fire company staffing and response times when reasonable doubt exists as to whether they influence aggregate outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong, faith and reason each have their place. One need not conflict with the other. I believe in many things I cannot possibly prove. But I remain skeptical that they cannot be proven at all, and as such remain unconvinced they are completely much less innately true. Where reason provides me with a portal to understanding, I find it only bolsters my faith.

I believe what we do as public safety professionals makes a great deal of difference to the communities we serve. I think I can prove what makes this difference in some, but not all cases. And where I can prove it, I almost always find that it is what and how we do things rather than how fast, how much, or how many, that makes the biggest difference.

To many firefighters, I am now the other as opposed to their brother. I will not take on the role of father, protector and defender of the faith, largely because I am unprepared to become the Big Brother people fear and despise. I would like to believe that taking the position I am will ultimately help the firefighters I work with see the brothers in others, and adapt to the new realities of our economy that emphasize what and how we do things over how many and how much.

I believe this is what needs to happen. And I accept that it remains to be seen whether I am right or wrong.

What’s Good for Us

March 7, 2012

Efforts to improve the efficiency and accountability of government services, as I discussed last week, are more likely to involve questions of quality than quantity. This, of course, presents certain problems, in part because our judgments about such things are influenced not only by different perspectives but also different values.

As the nation’s political discourse has become more hostile and divisive, I have discerned equally clear and consistent calls for consensus. To me, these calls often strike a dissonant chord, that comes across more like, “Be reasonable, do it my way,” than “What can we do that will satisfy everyone.” I chafe at this suggestion not because I dislike agreement (or alternatively, like disagreement), but rather because of the dangers such mindsets pose in monocultures.

Sadly, too many public safety organizations present just such problems. Not long ago, many public safety organizations suffered under the self-imposed oppression of autocratic, top-down management styles. Today, the pendulum has, in too many instances, swung too far the other direction. Some agencies are, in the words of a colleague, in danger of letting “the inmates run the asylum.” (The corollary to this perspective goes something like this: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but you might find it helpful.”)

Recently, some people have tried to convince me that this new cultural orientation reflects a generational shift in the workforce, others argue it is evidence of maturity or even diversity. (“We all agree, so anyone who disagrees with us is not only wrong but self-serving, petty, immature and intolerant.”) Consider me less than convinced.

Instead, what I see is a growing tendency to promote consensus as a way to avoid making decisions. It works this way: If I agree with you or you with me, I will support you and urge others to follow your direction. If what you suggest does not benefit me, even if it might arguably benefit others, I will not only refuse to support you, but I will actively organize others to oppose you. Moreover, if you don’t take the hint and desist from the course of action I dislike, I will attack you personally.

I find some of the most supportive and compliant people in my organization are the youngest and least senior employees. That is not to say, however, that they are the least experienced or mature. Note this distinction: Many of the employees with limited tenure in my organization defer to positional power not only because they lack tenure, but also because they often bring diverse experience outside public safety agencies to their positions. Put simply, they appreciate their positions in the organization and are usually more prepared to play them because they have no expectations of preferential much less deferential treatment. In many cases, they view their jobs as just that: a job, not an entitlement or a calling or a vocation or a profession. They work to live, not live to work.

Much of the conflict I experience in the workplace involves what I term “violent agreement.” Put another way, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” These days, it seems when people get what they want it often comes to them as a surprise. The problems this poses are amplified by the fact that many of their requests come in without goals or priorities attached.

This problem operates at all levels of the homeland security system. When I worked for a regional professional organization of public safety executives in the mid-1990s, I cautioned the board I worked for that their requests of Congress to expand federal grant opportunities would come at significant cost to them in the long run. As more resources became available, I suggested, more people would begin lining up at their desks with their palms extended. And as the line grew, they could expect that it would require them to pile the bills higher and higher to meet any one demand just so they could move on to the next one. And if, heaven forbid, the money stopped flowing, so too would the gratitude and support they received from those lining up to tell them how important and respected they were.

I would like to say I was proved wrong in my prediction, but sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. In addition to what I predicted, we have also experienced something I only feared. Ready access to more resources clearly made many public safety organizations less creative, flexible and responsible. In many ways, this has made them less reasonable as well. Not only are many public safety professionals unprepared to respond to calls for new ways of doing things close to their core business, they are also incredibly incensed that anyone would have the temerity to expect this of them. Two of the many examples of this that have come to my attention in recent weeks involve the cities of San Jose, California and Phoenix, Arizona.

In San Jose, an IBM Global Business Services team has recommended significant changes in the way the city manages fire department resources. For starters, they have openly questioned the practice of allocating firefighting resources to equalize or at least minimize disparities in response times across a geographic area. They have rightly noted that evidence of the effectiveness of this strategy is not only lacking, but that much of the evidence that does exist suggests marginal improvements in response times greater than three minutes and less than ten minutes do not pay in aggregate. In other words, they are inefficient because it costs more to shave a few seconds off average response times than any additional firefighting crew can ever hope to save in fire losses. The same can be said of emergency medical service, where the evidence points to bystander interventions, particularly CPR and automatic external defibrillators as key factors in improving outcomes in cases of witnessed cardiac arrest.

What makes the San Jose case even more interesting is the fact that IBM suggests a risk-based resource allocation as an alternative. This would result in staffing fluctuations based on trends in call volume and severity. It might also result in more units, staffed with fewer people being based in more flexible locations. Which is to say, it sounds an awful lot like the way private-sector ambulance services manage themselves already.

This, of course, not only frightens, but also angers firefighters. You see, EMTs who only ride ambulances get paid far less than firefighters. Using firefighters to perform roles as EMTs may make them more productive, but it does not improve efficiency and is thus steadfastly opposed by most firefighters.

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the management consulting firm Management Partners, has recommended replacing many uniformed officers with lower-paid but similarly or better-qualified civilian staff. This and other interventions, including new technology for compiling electronic patient care reports in the field, could save the city as much as $5.1 million per year.

Both cities face some formidable challenges in implementing their consultants’ visions. San Jose has already cut staffing by 18 percent since the recession began. Their firefighters union is openly hostile to absorbing any further cuts.

Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan has defended his department’s performance by arguing that joint labor-management committees have already begun implementing many of the consultant’s recommendations. I suspect this means they are happy to implement the ones they like — those that do not offend anyone, but expect a fight over the rest.

All this leaves me wondering why, in an era when public safety employees like many in the public itself openly question the old saw, “What’s good for GM is good for America,” they still believe that what’s good for them is what the community wants, expects and supports. When job security, pay and benefits trump public safety, I have to wonder. I wonder no less though when these same things (masquerading as public safety) are said to trump efficiency and accountability.

It is not my place to tell the public they cannot have public safety, efficiency and accountability all at once. It is not my responsibility to defend job security, pay and benefits that far exceed the median household incomes of those who pay for these services. And it is not reasonable to assume they – the public – will tolerate public service leaders who will accept or make such arguments for very much longer.

Mo’ Better Blues

February 29, 2012

The implicit social contract between government and the governed broke down decades ago for many Americans. As the electorate lost confidence in our political and appointed leaders’ empathy, integrity and wisdom, these leaders starting shifting attention from themselves to government employees.

At first, attention focused on whether government was doing things right. Increasingly, people question whether government is doing the right things. Our preoccupation has shifted from worrying that government was trying to do everything to wondering whether it can do anything. Many now question whether we even need government. And a good many more don’t care much one way or the other.

As we have traveled along this continuum from ambivalence to antipathy (and back), the public has rightly questioned both our purpose and our progress.

Many in power have framed public concerns in terms of two cardinal virtues: efficiency and accountability. And too many leaders have erroneously oversimplified this otherwise accurate prescription by translating it into the management mantra: “Do more with less.”

Anyone who has spent any time at all in public service has heard this mantra repeated often enough. Few find it soothing, even fewer find it inspiring.

The challenge for government is not doing more with less. The challenge for government has always been the same: How do we do better.

Any economist will tell you efficiency has nothing to do with less. It’s about minimizing losses, not inflicting them. An efficient economy maximizes aggregate welfare.

Welfare is far more a question of quality than it is a matter of quantity. Once you have enough, more makes less and less difference. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests more actually is less.

Because efficiency focuses on how much better off everyone is collectively, we need accountability to temper its application. Accountability without a sense of responsibility is retributive and irrational. As such, accountability demands equity, which focuses on increasing individual opportunity even if it means generating a little less welfare for all.

The challenge and opportunity for government is not in producing more for less. It is in maximizing aggregate welfare while promoting or advancing individual opportunity.

This is where things ought to get tricky, and does. Opportunity to do what?

The principal ideological and philosophical difference between those who support government and those who oppose it comes down to a difference of opinion about a single, simple expectation: Whether when given any opportunity people will look after themselves or others first.

This distinction should matter just as much to homeland security professionals as it does to politicians and ideological elites. How we operationalize “do better” depends very much on whether we assume individuals look to maximize their own opportunities or those of others.

When better assumes individuals look after themselves first, we have to worry about how far people will go to get what they want. We also have to worry what people will do to get what they need.

If we look after one another first, we have good cause to believe others will look after us. This eliminates or at least minimizes how much concern we should have about what people will do to meet their basic needs.

This still leaves us with the question of what people will do to get what they want. We cannot eliminate this concern for two reasons: 1) even someone with an altruistic orientation should reasonably strive to maximize gain, especially when the benefits are shared widely, and 2) one’s willingness to share will almost invariably vary depending on whether opportunities are expanding or contracting.

When things are good, people are in a better position to share. But to the surprise of many, they often do not.

As we’ve seen during the latest recession and long recovery, people will share even when (or perhaps especially because) it hurts. This may either be due to empathy or an expectation of future reciprocity. But whatever the reason, such benevolence can neither be overlooked nor taken for granted.

What then can we do to encourage renewed optimism in the capacity of government to promote if not do good by doing better? We can start by raising expectations rather than minimizing them. Instead of explaining what government cannot do, we should emphasize what it does better than the market.

To follow this up, we can show it’s not a question of quantity but quality that makes the difference. At a local level, this means less emphasis on response times and staffing and more on what we do to take care of people when they need help and have nowhere else to turn.

Finally, instead of arguing for employment conditions that give public workers more — more pay, more benefits, more security, we should emphasize the important part collective bargaining plays in ensuring equity and quality. Contracts bind both parties, not just management.

If we want to save the public service ethos, we need to start by sacrificing our egos.

Flashback or Rerun?

February 22, 2012

More than four years ago, I wrote an article (read it again here) in a much more public forum than this one about my concerns firefighters were expressing too great a sense of entitlement. Those recent readers of this blog (which I have been writing now for far longer than I have held my current day-job), could have found it and read it at any time. My position on this and many other topics is a matter of public record.

I am flattered by recent suggestions that this blog has a national if not international reach. Until a few days ago this was anything but true. Only family and close friends checked in with any regularity. On occasion someone lost in Internet search-land might stumble in thinking they might find something relevant.

This blog does not really exist to be read. It has always been primarily a thing to be written. A place for me to go with issues I dare not keep inside.

I do not hate firefighters. That would be self-loathing and self-defeating. I do expect a lot of them and myself though. And these days (and for quite awhile now) I have not been seeing it.

The generations of firefighters that came before us sacrificed mightily for the benefits we now enjoy. They did not feel entitled, they felt grateful.

Too many within our ranks have fallen for the myth that might makes right. A majority is little more than a reality distortion field when it pits the best interests of individuals and small groups against the common weal. Consensus does not equal correctness.

I am truly sorry that so many firefighters find my remarks offensive. But I do not apologize for offending. Your emotional response to what I am writing says much more about you than it does about me.

Attention! Attention?

February 21, 2012

Something’s odd. My last post generated a 50-fold increase in traffic to this blog. That got my attention. But it also got me asking why.

I suspect something I said touched a nerve. The only comment posted despite getting almost 500 hits so far was an anonymous, ad hominem attack that suggested I am “delusional, ill-informed, bitter, uneducated and probably doing a huge disservice to (my) firefighters, (my) department and (my) taxpayers.” Nice.

From this response, I drew the conclusion that at least some firefighters resent having attention drawn to the current situation, especially when so many others in their communities are struggling to get by. It’s a sad irony that so many of those struggling are exactly those to whom we have sworn our service.

I consider it self-serving and self-defeating to shoot the messenger when the message is so clear: Firefighters need to accept responsibility not only for the community they serve but to the community as well. That’s why we call it public service folks.

Most other public servants get it. They are anything but ‘delusional, ill-informed, bitter or uneducated.’ They are, however, disillusioned, if not dismayed, that all or most firefighters and cops get to keep their jobs while enjoying better pay and benefits at the same time others in the public sector worry about their jobs, look for new jobs or wonder whether they can afford retirement.

I want to be clear about this: Not all firefighters lack these insights or empathy for their fellow civil servants. Just some. And they are the ones who blame others for their problems rather than looking for partnerships and solutions that will help everyone do better (not more) with less.

As a fire chief, I am happy to work with any and all who want to improve the quality of fire and emergency service to our community. I do not consider it a given that people who get paid to serve do a better job. I do not consider it a given that my job, my pay or my benefits are entitlements; I must earn them. Earning these means looking first to what my community needs and expects of me. Doing this well requires me to look beyond past practices and my own biases and ask tough questions, even if they make me or others uncomfortable.

I believe we need firefighters. I trust the community will pay them for their service. But I also believe their willingness to do so has limits. And we may be approaching them faster than we know.

Those firefighters calling for my resignation or firing need to ask themselves how well they really know the community they serve. Even if I do go away, the questions I am asking will not.

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?