Author/Editor’s note: This post is intended for the disgruntled tax paying citizen that has seemingly turned against us in recent years. If you are a regular follower of this blog and know someone who could stand to read this please, by all means, direct them here. All quotes are “cut nd pasted” from their original sources so grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors are original from their author. As always, feedback is encouraged.
I admit it. I do it to myself. It’s kind of a sickness really. I just can’t help myself from clicking the “Comments” button at the end of an on-line news article or blog post revolving around firefighters. After reading those comments I usually end up feeling very disheartened, somewhat sad and occasionally just plain mad. These feelings are generated by the very angry and misinformed comments I read posted there by citizens that really seem to hate us. In some cases I kind of get it. The poster may be reacting to a scandal that was recently uncovered by a local reporter or a very public failure of some kind (read, Alameda, California). But for the most-part these angry posts are in direct relation to our earnings, benefits and working conditions or more accurately what a lay citizen thinks he or she knows about them. Oh, and lets not forget the big bad union. A ton of comments are leveled at us gold mongering union firefighters squarely in their sights. I keep looking for websites or blogs dedicated to retail employees, white-collar careers and un-employed living in my Mom’s basement workers so that I can comment on their situations with absolutely no background and little understanding but I can’t seem to find any. If I could I would surely be able to offer those workers some clear insight into what they should be doing and what they really deserve as compensation. Ok, like I said at the beginning, this is supposed to enlighten those people who pay their hard-earned money to taxes that go to support the fire department and its employees. So I would like to start doing a little MythBusting here.
Let’s see, where to start? I guess we’ll tackle the point that has most people up in arms right now; compensation and pensions. Compensation, so many people seem to hate the amount of money that we make. They feel that because they, as tax payers, are “paying our salaries” we should make just over minimum wage. Here’s an example from a comment in a recent news piece, “Do you not understand that there is only so much money available. if these guys were paid a fair wage there would be no need for layoffs,” by resident702. Or this one, “Good they are over paid and take advantage of the system. KARMA’S A BITCH,” by sevenhills. Hmm, ok. I don’t know what either of the authors of these comments do for a living but I’m going to draw a parallel using a generalization so please indulge me for the sake of argument.
Lets say resident is a hardworking employee at the local HomeDepot in the building materials department (my personal favorite). Each day at 0800 he reports dutifully for work, punches his time card, ties on the trade-mark orange apron and hits the floor. He takes stock of what lumber is low and needs restocking, tidies up a bit, replaces stock and helps answer customers questions. He gets a lunch break and a coffee break, talks with other co-workers, and kind of passes the last half-hour or so of his shift so he can get out of there. He punches his time card and goes home. Good day of work. Every two weeks he cashes his well earned paycheck and then grunts in disgust when it comes time to pay his tax bill.
Now, lets say sevenhills is a mid-level employee of a techy type business. His job is to analyze sales trends and make recommendations for production or new market research. He too starts his day at 0800 every Monday through Friday, except holidays and weekends, and wears his work gear consisting of a suit and tie. He sits down in is cube, fires up the computer and simultaneously checks e-mails and phone messages that have come in from the night. He grabs his first cup of coffee, chats it up with a couple co-workers, returns to his desk and fires off a few e-mails, returns a couple calls and gets to work on that report his manager wants before the end of the week. He’s really got to ensure that it’s a good one too, because business isn’t good and they’ve already let 15 people go in his division and there’s no way he wants to be next. He may even stay late tonight to make sure he gets caught-up on things. Every other week this guy too cashes his paycheck and like his brother-in-arms resident almost chokes as he writes out the check for his local taxes.
Ok, so why the stories. Well, in each of our two working stiff’s jobs they have a pretty narrow scope of expertise. One, lumber and associated building materials and the other sales figures and what they tell a business about the market they operate in. Both are very important knowledge bases and are needed not only by their respective companies but by those who rely on them for good, sound advice. Try supporting a an entire second story with a 2×4 and you’ll get a lesson in stresses and failure very quickly. Give a casual glance at sales figures and recommend building and marketing more of an inferior product and you get, well, the BlackBerry. But in the end both these guys are responsible for a narrow area of expertise. So how does this relate to a fire fighter, you may ask? This is how.
I am required to have a near expert level of knowledge in the following areas;
- The chemistry (yes, actual science stuff) of fire and how it occurs and behaves
- Biology on a pre-med level (I’m a paramedic too)
- Anatomy and Physiology (see above)
- Math to an advanced level (yeah, fire fighters use math too and paramedics use it a lot)
- Law, in order to carry out my duties within the local, county and state regulations regarding numerous different areas (business inspections, fire and life safety ordinances, laws regarding the treatment of patients, road laws pertaining to operating fire vehicles and numerous others)
- English and grammar in order to write patient reports as well as inter-departmental communications and those with the general public, almost any of which could be called into court and dissected by a lawyer
- A dabbling of foreign language, in my case predominantly Spanish, in order to communicate with my patients and those I am trying to help
- How to drive and operate a fire Engine (the one with the water and hose on it), specifically the pump which gives the firefighters on the hose line water
- How to drive and operate an Ambulance
- How to drive and operate a Tower Ladder (the one with the big ladder and basket on top), specifically the aerial ladder and its capabilities and limitations
- How to use and maintain every tool the fire department uses, from axes to the “jaws of life” to the nozzles and hoses. There are literally hundreds.
- How to respond to and operate safely at a Hazardous Materials incident
- How to respond to and operate safely at a Technical Rescue (high-angle, low-angle, trench, collapse) incident
- How to respond to and operate safely at a water incident
- How to respond to and operate safely at a motor vehicle accident with and without someone being trapped in the car (in other words, cutting the car apart)
- How to respond to and operate safely at any type of fire incident
- How to diagnose and treat just about any medical or traumatic ailment you can think of
- Oh, and how to remove a days-old kitten from a 2-inch drain pipe, because we respond to those kinds of calls too.
Hmmm, that’s kind of a lot you have to know to be a fire fighter and/or a paramedic. And speaking for myself, I have a Bachelor’s degree and if given college credit for all of my on the job training and classes could easily qualify for another degree. So we are educated as well. What is all that job knowledge and training worth? Oh, and don’t forget, we have to be darn near perfect with every decision we make or something really bad happens or someone dies.
Ok, onto the next topic. The dreaded pensions. Key foreboding music here. Do the majority of jobs in the U.S. have the benefit of a pension? No, most do not. At one time in U.S. history did most jobs have the benefit of a pension? Hard truth is yes, they did. Everyone from steel mill workers to insurance companies to railway workers to an assortment of white-collar positions had pensions as “retirement plan.” So what happened to those pensions and why were they given up? Well, the short answer is that many of those jobs were private sector and the companies simply decided to take the pension away, plain and simple. When you are a private business you are working for one person and one person only, the owner. And the sole purpose of you working there and doing your job everyday is to make the company successful thereby making more money for the owner. Well, why would I pay you money to retire when I could have all that money for me? Poof, no more pensions. And because most of those kinds of positions were non-union there was no one to stand up for the employees or to enforce contractually agreed upon commitments. Those private-sector jobs that were unionized that fell prey to the disappearing pension were, in general, due to a willingness to give up the pension at the negotiating table in order to try and solve financial short-falls within the company, much the same as fire fighters and other public sector employees are doing now with other pay and benefit areas. Unfortunately many businesses still failed leaving their employees with no pension. That is the risk of the free-enterprise system.
I really like this quote by 1776, “Glad to hear it! Every time they lay off one of these greedy overpaid goons it frees up over $100K in revenue. Or, in the case of the **** slugs, over $200K. 1 FireFrauder fired = 4 Teachers saved Firemen are anything but ‘working class’. They make more than you and I put together, and they do it lounging about cushy fire stations figuring out how they can scam taxpayers out of even more money to pay for their ridiculous pay and benefits. Fire all of them and you could replace every one of these arrogant morons with ivy league graduates for half the cost.”
So why are fire fighters fighting tooth and nail to protect their pensions? Simple, it was promised us when we started the job by the people who were at the same time using funds that were meant to support the pension for other projects. Fire fighters contribute, in general, about 10% of each paycheck towards their pensions. The employer makes up the rest, and yes, it uses tax payer monies. That money goes into a fund that is then invested in order to attempt to make money to grow the pensions fund (non-tax payer money) and to ensure that there is enough to go around. Someone retires, a new guy is hired to replace him and starts to replenish what is being paid out to the retiree. At least that’s how it is supposed to work. The way it has really been working over the last twenty or more years goes like this;
“Hey, Mr. Mayor.”
“Yes, Mr City Manager.”
“You know, people would be much happier in town if they had more parks for their kids to play in. And then more people would want to move here. And you know what that means! More tax revenue! Oh, and then because this is such a great place to live more businesses would want to move here. And you know what that means! More tax revenue! This is going to be great!”
“Well, yes Mr. Village Manager, that would be great. But where are we going to get the money for all these new parks? A new tax?”
“Oh no, Mr. Mayor. That would make people unhappy and be counter-productive to our plan. We have to find money somewhere else.”
Both look skyward, drumming their fingers on the part-time Mayor’s mahogany desk.
“I’ve got it, Mr. Mayor!”
“Yes, Mr. Village Manager.”
“We’ll use that money from the fire fighters and cops pensions! They don’t need it right now and once we build these parks and attract all the new residents and new businesses we’ll have plenty of money coming in to pay it back!”
“Don’t we have to pay our share of their pensions into the fund every year, Mr. Village Manager?”
“No, Mr. Mayor! That’s the beauty of this plan. The state law just says we have to contribute but not when or how much! Besides, we have actuarial reports that say at the current growth of the investments and with the new hires paying in we’ll be just fine!”
“But, Mr. Village Manager, those actuarial studies say that those numbers are only based on best-case scenarios and highest percentage returns. Shouldn’t we err on the side of caution?”
“Mr. Mayor, please. If our actuaries say its so, then who are we to question them?”
“Well, ok, Mr. Manager. I guess its ok. And we are acting in the best interest of the Village, right?”
“Right, Mr. Mayor.”
So all this “extra” money that villages and cities had just lying around doing nothing, like being deposited in the fire fighter and cops pension funds, was used for other projects. Also, as we all know, those actuary studies hit a little bump in the road after, oh I don’t know, maybe September 11th, 2001 and up to now. Oh, and then because of the decline in the economy and the cash strapped condition of most municipalities and government entities employees that retired weren’t being replaced by new hires because of cut-backs. So there was no new influx of money to keep what little solvency was left in many pension systems. Yet, while all this was going on, each fire fighter was continuing to contribute his 10% a paycheck to try and make his retirement more comfortable. Oh, and the whole retiring “early” thing? Yes, fire fighters can retire after 20 – 30 years of service. So, a fire fighter that was hired at age 21 could retire anywhere between the ages of 41 and 51. Most, however don’t get hired as soon as they are eligible at age 21 and many stay much closer to the 30 year mark than the 20, which combine to push the retirement age higher. The reason fire fighters shouldn’t be required to work until age 65 or more is very simple. Fire fighting, training and operations are very strenuous and more fire fighters are killed every year by heart attack and stroke than by actual burning buildings or other causes. Some of you will immediately say, “then the lard-butts should get into shape!” I’ve got news for you, physical fitness certainly helps, no doubt, but heat, stress, physical exertion and the weight of our gear all combine to hammer even the most physically fit fire fighter and greatly increases our risks for these, and other, medical issues.
Lets see, what’s next. Oh, ok, how about the one about fire fighters don’t do anything and spend the majority of their day sitting around? watchdog had this to say, “Th amount of money th ese jerks make for siting around doing nothing is incrdibal. they go shopping during the day and sleep all night. Good riddance.” In some ways I think that we are victims of our professions’ name. Fire Fighter really does imply only one thing, the actual combatting of fire. It doesn’t take into consideration the hundreds of other types of calls we respond to and which the general population may not be aware, some of which I listed above. Recently the newly installed chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Rescue Department wanted to change the official moniker of the department from DCFD (District of Columbia Fire Department) to DCFEMS, or simply FEMS for DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services. He stated he wanted to make this change to reflect the multi-facted role the department played, both fire response and emergency medical (ambulance) response. There was an outcry because evidently, unbeknownst to both the chief and this author, “fems” is a derogatory term sometimes used against homosexual people. Without that little issues, however, I think I kind of agree with him. We do so much more than just fight fire and I don’t think the public really understands or realizes that. The Redwood City, California, Fire Department understood that and when faced with a severe reduction in both budget and manning they produced this excellent video entitled, “We Never Had a Fire”. Please take a few minutes to watch it.
On a daily basis in the U.S. firefighters respond to calls involving any and every kind of medical emergency imaginable, activated fire alarms, activated carbon monoxide alarms, “wires down” (from telephone poles) calls, “smell of something burning” calls, well-being checks on people that have not been seen or heard from in a while, leaks and spills of innumerable different liquids, gases and solids, auto accidents, people trapped, building collapses, trench collapses, people trapped in machinery, unknown odor calls, wires sparking calls, auto fire calls, water rescue calls, field or brush fire calls, the “my (insert home appliance here) is making a funny sound” calls, flooded basement calls and yes, even the days-old kitten stuck in a 2″ pipe calls. Notice that very few of those calls involved fire at all and I didn’t even mention structural (building) fire fighting. The fire department is the jack-of-all-trades, experts at all, safety net of the public. The police, public works or any other department in your local municipality can not and will not be able to respond to and mitigate even a few of those calls noted above. And besides answering calls we constantly train to respond to different kinds of calls, perform maintenance on our stations, equipment and apparatus (our fire trucks), perform fire prevention duties, public education duties and community outreach duties. Yes, there is down-time. No, we do not respond to calls or perform those other duties 24 hours a day seven days a week. After a certain hour (it is different from department to department) it is “down” time, where we can relax, watch TV, exercise or do pretty much whatever as long as it allows us to remain ready to respond to an emergency call. Some days are busier than others, some days are slow. I defy any worker in America to tell me that they actually work every second of every work hour of every day (think Facebook checks, personal portfolio checks, smoke breaks, BS’ing with coworkers, on-line games etc.), and most work days are at most half as long as a firefighters (using a 24 hour shift). Early in our dating my now wife couldn’t understand why I came home and went right to bed or took a nap during the day. So, I gave her a challenge. The next shift I worked I would call her every time we either got back from a run or were at the hospital. She would then have to stay up for one hour (a good median amount of time it takes to handle a call) before going back to sleep. The fire and EMS gods were kind to me that shift and we were busy. After the third phone call and with it being pushing 3 AM she called a truce and begged me to just let her go to sleep. I was merciful. Sometimes I still need to remind her of that.
I think the last myth I’ll try to debunk (since this post is at 3,366, 67, 68) words is the oft-heard, “we don’t need as many firemen because there aren’t a lot of fires anymore,” myth. Along these lines tbvegas had this to say, “They are so overstaffed. I watched these guys put out a trash can fire once. There were 8 trucks and 35 firefighters on the scene. 1 guy holding a hose putting out the trash can. Seriously. The hole hero thing has need milked to death! They could fire 40 more and it would still be just fine.” Man, I wish I knew what Mr. or Ms. tb did for a living so I could expertly tell him or her how many people they needed to effectively do it. Here’s what else I would say to tb and to you reading this post, without direct knowledge of the specific call to which tb is referring I can only hazard a couple educated guesses as to what happened. 1) tb is full of BS and wants to make the local FD look as bad as possible so he made this story up. That happens A LOT in this on-line comments. 2) If his count of 8 trucks and 35 firefighters is to be believed I would have to believe that this call came in as something other than a trash can fire. Perhaps a “dumpster fire in or next to the building”, or an unknown type fire at 123 Main St. So, not knowing exactly what was on fire or where it was in relation to the address the dispatcher probably sent a full structural fire response to be safe. I can tell you from personal experience that when you show up with one fire truck (or ambulance, even worse yet) and find a raging structure fire it is a lonely feeling. To avoid delays in combatting the fire most departments dictate that any type of unconfirmed fire, fire next to a building, or in a building, no matter how big, has a full assignment sent in order to minimize damage and eliminate a delay. Does this sometimes result in 8 fire trucks and 35 firefighters on the scene of a trash can fire. Yes it does. As soon as the situation was found to be a trash can fire and nothing but a trash can fire were 7 of those 8 rigs and all their firefighters made available to respond to any other call, I can safely say I would bet my next paycheck on it.
When there is a structural fire the lay person jut doesn’t realize how many tasks need to be accomplished and how quickly they need to be done in order to minimize damage and potentially save a life. In fact, residential structure fires are back on the increase in the United States and are still the most common to result in the most deaths and injuries every year. Don’t believe me? Check out the United States Fire Administrations 2009 Annual report here and check it out for yourself. The tables and associated notations can be found on pages 5 – 10.
So, while you, the average tax payer, may not necessarily care if Joe Bob’s Big TV Emporium burns to the ground you may care when your house, your family members house or your friends house catches fire and someone is still inside. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently conducted a very large study on the affect of the firefighting crew size in regards to achieving 22 key fire ground operations specific to residential structure fires. For the study NIST used a response of 3 Engines (water) 1 Truck (big ladder) and 1 command vehicle. This is a fairly standard response model around the country, not always but very common. The conclusion that NIST came to is that a crew of 4 – 5 fire fighters per apparatus (the Engines and the Truck) is the best number in order to accomplish those 22 tasks in a timely enough manner to save lives and property. The average number of fire fighters responding on most Engines and Trucks across the country is 3. Many places that are served by volunteer or part-time fire departments respond with 1 – 2 firefighters on an apparatus. You can find the report here. Be warned, it is full of excellent information but is a scientifically based white paper. It is written in a scientific format and contains firefighting terms. Still, if you believe that your town, city or village has too many fire fighters you should give it a read.
Ok, I think I’ve probably done nothing to convince those that are hard-core fire fighter haters out there that we really are needed and what we do is actually important. I hope that I’ve managed to change some minds or at the very least educate some people. Regardless, I will continue to report for duty every day and give my best in order to help people that I have sworn to protect. If any civilians want to discuss other issues like full-time fire departments versus volunteer or part-time or the fact that many fire fighters work part-time jobs on their days off I’d be happy to answer questions about those topics as well. But for now I think I’ve taken up enough of your time. Good luck and …