Tackling Staffing and Mourning The Fallen

I’d like to offer my condolences to the family of Firefighter Mark Falkenhan, of the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Company (MD).  FF Falkenhan was searching an occupied building for occupants when, according to Baltimore County Fire Department Chief John Hohman, a flashover occurred.  Our Brother was severely burned and succumbed to his injuries.  Godspeed, Brother; my thoughts and prayers are with both your families.  You can find CNN’s coverage here.

I don’t know if I should touch this with a ten foot hook right now, but I received a comment on the blog last night that I think is worth discussing.  Jessie Rosewall, Assistant Fire Chief, of the River Delta Fire District(CA) commented on “They Have Delusions of Adequacy”:

“I am glad you are reporting information but instead of griping, complaining and pointing fingers. Why don’t you assist these politicians, management leaders and unions in developing strategies to accomplish goals of keeping fire apparatus staffed? The bottom line is, just like you home budget, you can’t keep spending more than what you make. Yes, some of our leaders or politicians have allowed this to happen. Instead of banking revenue while the boom was going good, they made foolish mistakes of increasing spending.

We are all feeling the stretch. We also see the unions equally to blame. Our hands are tied when we look at other staffing options such as volunteers or reserve firefighters filling seats on apparatus.

Unfortunately some, not all of your brothers and sisters in the unions see them as “TAKING AWAY A PAID JOB” instead of a well trained part time paid, reserve or volunteer capable firefighter who can save a life just as well as a paid person.“

So we come to the 800 pound gorilla in the room at every fire department convention, conference, round-of-drinks.  Do we need career firefighters?  In the interest of full disclosure, I am a dues paying member of the International Association of Fire Fighters and worked to organize a former part-time fire department I worked for with the Service Employees International Union.

My answer is yes, we need career firefighters. We want career teachers, career doctors, and a career military.  We should want career firefighters for the same reason: a career member can devote more time to mastering their trade than someone who must support his or her family doing other work.  I have met many dedicated, trained, focused Fire Service Warriors for whom the fire service is an additional duty they have stepped up to perform.  Everyone of them has said to me that they wished they could be a career firefighter and they have all complained about the difficulty of making time to train on top of their full time job and spending time with their families.

I do agree with A/C Rosewall that Unions will argue against the employment of substitute firefighters.  That is why they exist.  Again as a dues paying member if my local said, “Sure, lay the bottom six guys off and we’ll use a bunch of electricians, plumbers, mechanics, and school teachers as volunteers to fill those spots,” I would file a lawsuit for failure to represent.

I want to be clear however: My stance on career firefighters has NOTHING to do with unions.  No one can deny that unions have done good for many blue-collar folks; however their system cuts both ways.  The union has the responsibility to preserve and defend the employee who meets the minimum standard just as much as the superstar.  That is the nature of organized labor all over this country. What we come to though is staffing.  How do we staff apparatus and provide adequate fire protection for everyone in a fiscally responsible way.

My anecdotal assessment is that we need consolidation.  It costs money to keep fire stations open, buy apparatus, buy equipment, and administer a Fire Department or District.  It costs money to train, and staff apparatus.  Fire has no idea if there is a political boundary on one side of the street versus another.  The village I live in has career firefighters, and strives to show up on a call with four personnel per apparatus.  Cross the street that is the dividing line between my community and the City of Chicago and every company pulls up with five personnel.  The fire doesn’t know that my community has lower staff and that it has to develop more slowly.

If you look at communities all over there are fire departments that are providing redundant services.  For example in Cook County (IL) there are 118 fire departments. According to the Census Bureau in 2009 the estimated population of Cook County was 5,287,037.  Of that 5.2 million people, 2.8 million (2006 estimate) live in the City of Chicago.  The City of Chicago is 227 square miles.  The remainder of Cook County is 718 square miles.

If we separate the City of Chicago from the rest of the County we see that there are 117 separate fire departments protecting 2.4 million people in 718 square miles.  There are 117 fire chiefs; 117 organizations that are buying small quantities of equipment; 117 organizations trying to purchase apparatus; 117 organizations trying to find qualified members to arrive of the scene of a fire ready to work.  I know there are departments that are struggling under the weight of overtime everyday.  That’s because they are trying to “Do more with less,” and aren’t hiring the staffing needed to minimize overtime.

I think we need to look at consolidations in a serious light.  Figuring out the details are far above my pay grade, but I can tell you this.  A simple look at the numbers shows that all of Cook County (excluding the City of Chicago) could be protected to the minimum standards of NFPA 1710 with roughly 8000 firefighters, officers, and chiefs.  I would bet my paycheck that if a consolidation like that happened the tax burden on our citizens could be reduced and many of the budget issues we are seeing would go away.

I’m sure I have chosen to sit under the sword of Damocles here but even suggesting such a thing, but it’s what I believe.  Later on I’m going to record Video Blog number two and talk about the Duty of Fire Service Warriors.  Cheers.

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