Death of the Fire Service?

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This past week Fred S. McChesney, law and economics professor, wrote in the Washington Post that decreasing fires made most paid municipal fire departments unnecessary and that volunteers were the answer.

McChesney said, “There are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago, but about 50 percent more people are paid to fight them.”

If McChesney’s prescription was valid we would all be delivering our own mail as the US Postal Service continues to tank.

Here may be the most ridiculous statistic in an article full of them: “Firefighters responded to 487,500 structure fires  across the United States in 2013, which means each of the nation’s 30,000 fire departments saw just one every 22 days, on average.”

That sentence equates FDNY with the East Clamshucker Volunteer Fire Department: utterly absurd.

 The Combination Department: A McChesney Mystery

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In his world the creation of “dual service” or combination departments providing both fire and emergency medical services is a 21st century phenomenon rigidly opposed by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), an AFL-CIO union.

In fact, “fire departments” have been providing both fire and EMS service for decades, many for over 50 years, and the IAFF has been a vigorous proponent of combined service delivery.

McChesney’s ignorance of the fire service and his anti-union stance are on full display.

Some departments may treat patients and others may both treat and transport but the provision of EMS is an accepted part of our delivery model and most importantly it’s what taxpayers want and expect.

Has Mr. McChesney, a sort of latter day Rip Van Winkle in barrister robes, suddenly emerged from a 40-year slumber?

The fire station as the community center for EMS response is as old as apple pie and is an effective and accepted model.

To be sure, fire departments that have failed to take up the provision of EMS face the fate of becoming less essential when fire responses decrease.

The Physics (and Physiology) of Fire

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Nowhere does Mr. McChesney address the immutable facts of unchecked fire growth or cardiac death.

In both cases you have around four to eight minutes, perhaps a little more or less, to do something substantive or you are in for a very bad time.

Time, then, is of the absolute essence.

And time, in the emergency operational sense, is not simply of the travel type, but the actual time until effective action is underway.

This is another area where Mr. McChesney is blithely clueless.

The formula is hardly complicated: sufficient emergency responders need to be situated so that they can deploy quickly enough to intervene effectively.

Too little, too late, never works.

The fire and rescue service, and the IAFF for that matter, hardly need to apologize for requiring adequate troops to be properly deployed to ensure effectiveness.

On Volunteers

Washington at 40

Washington at 40

It’s hard not to conclude that there is some less than rational emotional component to the argument that volunteers can provide an effective response force in moderate to densely populated areas.

The use of volunteers also suggests that the knowledge and skills required is so rudimentary that it does not require nearly constant practice and training.

It also fails to address the critical time issue associated with emergency response.

Volunteers have been famously unaccountable, often when it matters most, as they provide something for nothing and can withdraw, on a mere whim, whenever they wish.

The idea of volunteers replacing career firefighters and paramedics is a misty-eyed and nostalgic salute to a Norman Rockwell past.

In fact, while volunteers can have a role to play, George Washington was the first to point out that they are no substitute for a regular force.

 The Professional Obligation

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Still, if it’s your career you need to remain relevant and open to adapting so that you are an essential component of the community.

If you get sloppy or greedy you may pay the price.

My two best examples of both are the 48-hour shift and retirement benefits which include overtime and other supplemental pay in the final calculation.

When you think it’s OK to regularly work 48 straight hours so that you can have four or so days off you are doing nothing more than devaluing your profession out of personal greed.

Would you ride on an airplane flown by a pilot who had been on continuous duty for 48 hours?

And, when you load up your pension benefit with final year overtime that is not part of the actuarial assumptions your greed damages the long-term prospects of the benefit and endangers it for younger and newer members.

Bottom line:  Professionalism includes personal accountability.

And, with people like Fred McChesney around we don’t need to be screwing each other.

They have that handled for us.

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