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There can be no substitute for overwhelming force

In the past months the nation has seen firefighters and other first responders face complex and difficult times. On the world stage we have viewed the inner department difficulties of a wide range from firefighters charged for committing criminal acts to firefighters justifying their right to a credibly earned promotion. Coupled with these we also see the constant difficulties that fire departments across the country are facing with budgets. No longer a sacred cow, fire departments have had to increasingly justify their financial existence against over-crowded schools, crime prevention and libraries. The budget cleaver has hit two of the most well known departments in the country; FDNY and LAFD.  If there ever was a small town mayor that feared cutting his fire department’s budget, he has nothing to fear now as two of the largest cities in the nation have begun using words like ‘brownout’ and ‘closing’. The mantra of doing more with less has become a universal public administration policy.

The Prince George’s County (MD) Fire and EMS Department has dealt with its share of financial burdens in a manner reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Two feuding families, the IAFF Local 1619 and the volunteer association, each face near tragedy based on the ever changing staffing schedule. In an effort to reduce overtime, career personnel are relocated to other stations while volunteers are put on notice that for select days they will have no career staff. To trim more fat from this anorexic cow, the box alarm assignment has been revised as well. What once received four engines, two trucks, a rescue squad and battalion chief now gets two engines and one truck. Administrators point towards statistics showing the number and type of responses as justification that, if needed, the remainder of the box alarm will be quickly dispatched. This is true, however for a service that relies on the ‘seconds count’ phrase, seconds turn to minutes while the truck officer and barman are pinned down in the hallway. A foreshadowing of this came about when an engine temporarily assigned to Company 17 caught fire in quarters. Unable to extinguish the fire, personnel requested the box alarm which brought the much needed resources – except the first due engine. Ironically on that day the first due engine company had its career staff removed. There were no volunteers to respond. While the Capulets and Montagues trade insult for insult as to why this once a reputable department has fallen apart, each fails to make progress in telling the public and politicians why a large first response is necessary. It is hard in this county to influence public opinion. Mislabeled as having poor schools and overwhelming crime, constituents are reluctant to look outside their fishbowl and understand why an engine or truck company with five to six firefighters is just as important as school district realignment and the building of a new light rail system. Instead, they briefly follow the news or hype that details immature antics, criminal offenses and other firefighter and fire department shortcomings. The fire service plays a sophomoric game of spin and redirect in an attempt to address the issues, but never does it bring the public fully into the real problems that it faces.

The same is true across the nation. The Boston Fire Department has insult after insult from the public following the deaths of Cahill and Payne. Allegations of alcohol and cocaine in their system tainted the public’s understanding of risks of interior firefighting. This was piled on with various other criminal acts by individuals associated with the fire department through the years, most recently another marijuana grower. While the nation’s firefighters recognize that the illegal acts of a minority do not come close to representing the whole, the public doesn’t see it that way. In turn, the once sacred cow is now seen as no different as any other government agency; equally corrupt, equally untrustworthy. As Mayor Menino and the city closed firehouses, Local 718 was quick out of the gate to tell the public how they were in jeopardy. Yet despite the ‘volunteer staffing’ and picketing it is hard to sway public opinion when the department’s past news was in bad light. That was, until this week.

This week the nation, or at least the nation’s media saw the proof that the general welfare and safety of its public requires an overwhelming force on the first response. Amid stories of the geriatric protesting health care reform, window washers have become “Joe the Plumber” for the fire service. In both Boston and Long Beach fire departments responded without lack of needed resources and successfully rescued window washers from great heights. It is true that such events may be once in a lifetime responses, but the point is that neither had the problem that Prince George’s County had – a unmanned first due company. Include this weekend’s midair collision over the Hudson River. While the FDNY months earlier faced firehouse closings and reduced engine company staffing, the FDNY was able to respond with its usual compliment of resources for a major incident. Departments everywhere that face the budget axe have relied on the defense that they are the first responders, the first line of defense. This mantra from the September 11 2001 response has now become old, to the point of cliché. Instead the defense against budget cuts should come from the daily proven record that overwhelming force is needed on the fireground. The knowledge we already possess, about fully staffed engines and trucks and full box alarm assignments needs to be held alongside nationwide events such as dangling window washers and aircraft in the water.

The previous message by unions and associations has relied on prevention and legislative issues. In Prince George’s County, the last known use of a fireground image to prove a point was a fatal fire in Beltsville in July 1997. Local 1619 used the image of firefighters James Almoney and Ron Haufe to direct the public’s attention that this fire, which killed a 14-month old child (and almost killed Almoney as well) could have been prevented if the home had working smoke detectors and if the first due engine had more than the two firefighters. It was posted on a nearby highway billboard for awhile and quietly faded away. The recent events, both successful and tragic, present opportunity for the fire departments everywhere to redirect their public image. Impressing upon the public the need to have fully staffed apparatus and full first alarm assignments – overwhelming force – will do more than resting on our first responder laurels.


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