Broken Windows

Three areas that will, for either better or worse, show your image

There is a phenomenon in the urban areas of the country known as “broken windows syndrome” (and I don’t mean Microsoft Windows, which breaks often enough as it is!)

"Broken windows syndrome" occurs when a property becomes vacant and starts to decay. Perhaps it is a house in the neighborhood that was foreclosed on or a factory that closed due to competition or bankruptcy. As time marches on, it starts getting vandalized. It begins with someone throwing a rock through one of the windows and breaking it. As time goes by, more windows are broken, trash accumulates, any landscaping that the property had when it was occupied is now horribly overgrown. Kids use it to party in, drug addicts use it as a place to get high and the homeless move in to get out of the weather. Property values drop for the residences and buildings around the now abandoned structure, which causes a ripple effect. Once a building falls victim to the broken windows syndrome, the blight moves onto another building. The process continues until the entire neighborhood looks like a war zone.

The fire service its own versions of the “broken windows syndrome”.

One version deals with fire apparatus. It starts innocently enough with a small dent or scratch in the bodywork, one that is not covered under the FD’s insurance deductible. The attitude is it will get a few more scratches, dents and dings over time, as the newness of the rig wears off, the scent of the new truck decays and morphs into the scent of structure fire. A small tear in the upholstery of the seats goes unnoticed and then grows as time goes on. In the Northeast, Midwest and other areas that get snow, the road salt and other deicing chemicals take a toll on the trucks. Eventually, the truck looks like it has been through a war or two. Some fire departments are able take care of things before they turn into problems and prioritize repairs (function over beauty; an engine has to pump water, the truck needs to be able to raise the stick, etc.) while others cannot because of “other priorities” or lack of funding to properly maintain the rigs.

A second version deals with the stations themselves. Many of our brothers and sisters operate out of firehouses that were built in the days of horse drawn apparatus. When these departments became motorized, the trucks were not much bigger than the horse-drawn steamers, hand tubs and hose wagons. Based on chassis such as the truck version of the Ford Model T. As time progressed, apparatus became bigger and more powerful. With today’s requirements for us to perform multiple roles in the public safety arena, today's trucks are huge. Some barely fit through the doors. The living quarters in many of these stations haven’t been updated either. It seems that in a lot of communities, upgrades and maintenance of City or Town Hall, the schools and the senior centers take precedence over the living conditions in the firehouses. Firehouses are our home and while we treat it as such, it is a travesty that we have to fix things ourselves because of other “priorities”. A friend of mine worked at a firehouse built in 1886. The place houses an Engine and Truck company and was, and still is, a rat hole. The windows rattle in the wind and it costs a fortune to heat the place. The roof leaks in more than a few places and chunks of plaster have been known to fall off the walls and ceiling. The heating system, when it does work, sounds like a “clinking, clanking, clunking collection of caliginous junk” like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. If it were an apartment building, the city and town fathers would likely have it condemned as unfit for human habitation and have it torn down. Yet the firefighters are expected to live and work out of that station during their tours of duty.

The third version is our image. Despite the versions of broken windows above, some firefighters still have pride and ownership in the job, the uniform and in their appearance; others couldn’t give a fat rat’s rump what image they project and they look like they just crawled out of an alley after a weekend of hard living and went through a clothes donation bin to get their uniforms. Some firefighters do stupid things like wear their uniform shirts into the local gin mill, or have the gall to ask a local restaurant or merchant for a discount because “we put our lives on the line for you”.

Let’s hide the rocks before any more windows get broken.


Photos courtesy of LLoyd Mitchell photography.


Ron Ayotte is a Deputy Chief of the Marlborough (MA) Fire Department and employee to the Support Services division of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Service/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.

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