Tuesday, March 8, 2011


The words I am about to write will likely instill anger and fear in some readers. That I have even thought of them disturbs me, as they go against my belief in the fire protection model in which I have been raised.

As I see it, the current fire/ems delivery system focuses on protecting the lives and property of the individual, with the understanding that if the individual's property is protected, society's collective property will be protected as well.  If an aggressive interior attack is performed on my burning house, the fire will be prevented from spreading to my neighbors home and then those of the remainder of the neighborhood. The same concept is applied to commercial and multi-family housing buildings as well. If the fire is contained to a single room or area of the blacksmith shop, the fire is prevented from spreading to the general store.

In a similar way, the same concept is applied to EMS. If an individual has a life threatening injury or an emergent medical condition, the rapid application of ALS procedures will save that individual's life, sparing society the cost of supporting the survivors and the loss of a valued member of society.

Morally, I support the above concept. I think it is a noble cause to protect the individual from emergency situations. I hate it when an individual dies or when an individual loses their possessions to fire. Just because a disaster is limited in scope to one person, it doesn't reduce it's impact on that individual.

For a long time now, the protection of society through the protection of the individual has been acceptable to most of society. The willingness to financially support the existing system was widespread, with little opposition to it's cost. In many communities it was a priority, with other services being sacrificed to maintain or expand public safety services. Frankly, I am OK with that too. Society, as well as individuals, need to prioritize expenditures and fund the high priority items.

The current economic turmoil has triggered a backlash against the status-quo in government. While certain segments of society have always been opposed to government providing services, those opinions were countered by those of socially conscious individuals and organizations, who lobbied for increased levels of service.

The pendulum is now swinging the other direction. What was a smaller segment of the population who advocated a smaller governmental influence is now a much larger one. The rise of the Tea Party movement is a manifestation of the smaller government movement. This shift is a direct result of the dwindling resources of both individuals and governmental agencies. People are making less money and are therefore providing less revenue to the government.

The pinch is so tight in some areas, that the once sacred cow of public safety is now fair game. Many communities have laid off significant numbers of firefighters, are carrying vacancies and have closed or browned out fire stations. A few fire departments have even ceased operations. This situation is going to get worse before it gets better.

It has been my experience that the budgetary fortunes of local government trails that of the economy by about two years. It just takes that long for a reviving economy to filter through the tax collection system. As signs of any economic recovery being extremely slow, it is going to be quite some time before our situation improves.

Economic conditions, combined with the current political environment, lead me to believe that we have seen the pinnacle of public safety protection in our society and that future service delivery models will be that of lower expectations, not more.

Whereas now we spend a lot of effort on the protection of individual property, future delivery systems will likely focus on protection of the community - mainly the prevention of conflagration and the confinement of fire to the structure of origin. The days of twelve or fifteen firefighters arriving on scene within ten minutes may be numbered. The goal of having an interior attack underway within eight minutes of an alarm may no longer be desired and may be altered to adjust for greatly reduced staffing levels. Images of firefighters spraying water through an open window from the outside may become more common as levels of acceptable loss increase.

While this concept is repugnant to us, to those who manage government at a level higher than our departments, it is more than acceptable as it frees scarce budget dollars to use in other areas. Fire and police have long been viewed as necessary evils by many city mangers. Political pressure from unions, union supported politicians and other fire service organizations have prevented them from gutting fire service budgets in the past.

The recent debacle in Wisconsin and other attacks on public employee unions have exemplified a shift in attitudes toward public employees and firefighters in particular. Every form of media outlet is filled with ant-government, anti-union and anti-public employee diatribe. The conservative backlash against the protests and against governmental service in general has served it's purpose. Union influence is waning, maybe to the point of not being able to counter the attacks on public safety services.

As many requests for EMS services are made by people who don't vote and pay little taxes, EMS will not be immune either. The expectation of an immediate 911 response to any request for medical aid will be a thing of the past, waits for an ambulance will be like that of those at the ER. 

I hope that my vision of the future is wrong or at least not as dire. If this should be our future, us old timers will have to radically alter our way of doing business in order to comply with the new delivery system. Progressive, visionary managers may have to base their visions on the far past, not an idyllic future. Many of us may have to make changes to our lifestyle, as compensation will surely drop along with societal expectations.

The reality is that it is really not up to us, it is up to the public we serve. They are the ones who determine what levels of risk they are willing to accept. Despite our efforts to educate the them, it has been determined by many communities that we are just not worth the money and that they will take their chances. That will work out for most, until it is their ox that is gored.

Thanks for reading,
a pessimistic Schmoe


  1. When was the last time a block of homes burnt to the ground because the one in the middle caught fire? Here's a thought: If you can't remember, it's because you and your fellow firemen are doing a good job.

    I've been watching this whole debacle about government employees, unions and various other associated finger pointing and name calling contests, and none of the people doing the screaming knows what they're talking about. I've resisted writing about it, but my resistance is beginning to wane.

    Look. Back in the day when my Great Grandfather strapped on his six gun and headed West with a new type of oil drill in his wagon (and that's the truth, by the way) anytime a new town got started the orders of business were to build a church, appoint a sheriff and get a fire brigade started. Eventually a fire engine would be purchased. Nobody needed to be talked into this; all they had to do was take a good look at the damage from a fire that wasn't extinguished in time.

    We need the fire department. We are not going to get along without it. What the fire department lacks is advertising. I couldn't even begin to tell you how many fires the Sylvania Township Fire Department put out last week, nor can I tell you how many people work in the STFD. Police and EMT are in the same boat. No one knows what they do or how they get it done.

    I'm tempted to see if I could ride along with the local FD and see what's what.

  2. Could you elaborate upon why you believe the various unions are essential in countering "attacks on public safety services"? Is this a PR function as opposed to representing the interests of the employees?

  3. Anon - I can only speak for my local in my union. We have always lobbied for increased levels of public safety within our agency, as well as wages and benefits for our members.

    While I don't believe that the union should hold all of the power when it comes to public safety issues, I don't think a cop/firefighter hating county administrator should have it all either. For me, it's a matter of balance and where I work, we are the only weight on the fire service side of the teeter-totter.

    Thanks for the comments folks.

  4. Schmoe, IMHO the broadly perceived conflict of interest makes these unions such an imperfect proponent these days, that you'd be better off doing public relations entirely independently somehow. Your blog is far more credible; maybe that is the way to go?

  5. fhce - Though I may have some credibility, I lack the audience and the funds to influence the political and public relations tide.

    As stated above, I can only speak for my local and my union. Past administrators would have had two persons show up to a fire on an engine and would have had me living in a garage door house. Due to our collective efforts, neither has happened.

    This post wasn't really about unions, but rather about the direction that society appears to be turning.

    Thanks for the comment

  6. Cap,

    The comments right here demonstrate your point. Even though one might expect those who read your blog would be favorably disposed to the fire service, 2 of the 4 people who commented couldn't wait to question your pro-union statements. Those outside of our organization have no idea how much our union has done for public safety. While they argue that we are only "feathering our own bed", the public reaps the benefits of the standards, manpower, training, and legislation that firefighters have influenced.

    Who ever heard of Hazmat before firefighters started demanding training to handle chemical emergencies? How many people have been rescued from fires, or their homes salvaged because the union prevented the mayor from gutting the FD to build a new city hall? How much money has been saved for property owners by the diminished insurance rates provided by our services?

    I will agree with the PR aspect, we have a common message but limited means to get it heard. We have allowed the politicians to frame the debate. Our members need to embrace social media and the press to get the word out, but it goes against our cultural values to toot our own horn. I fear that we will not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive.

  7. I'm one of those "how small can we make government?" guys, but I don't know if I'm a typical one.

    Unions are not the problem. Blaming unions is a magic trick by politicians hoping to redirect attention from themselves. Plus, as far as I can see, unions are a right (free speech, free association).

    Fire is the last thing on my mind when I'm thinking of smaller government. I prefer to start with the politicians and move sideways (the commercial interests they ally with). Blaming government workers is another magic trick.

  8. A professional athlete has an agent and nobody thinks twice about it. Somehow it's become fashionable to slam the idea that a blue collar worker can have someone advocating for his interests too. Sure unions aren't perfect - but who else is going to represent us? It sure isn't the Republican or Democratic party. Ask yourself - who is spewing the anti-union propaganda and why? IMHO those that think that unions have somehow outlived their usefulness are delusional. We need them now more than ever.

  9. John, no one argues that 'unions are only "feathering our own bed"', just that this is *part* of their job. No one argues with the bulk of Schmoe's lament about the lowering of service standards either. Sorry that I neglected to include an "amen" to the the general message of the original post.

    The point was simply that to argue most persuasively for the preserving/raising service standards, beware of conflicts of interest. Nothing more.