I recently sent a friend an article from an online magazine that tore into firefighters from a few angles, including whether it is appropriate to refer to them as real heroes. My friend has been a fire service leader for many years and is very well respected in the industry. His response to me contained only seven words: “What a difference 10 years can make.”
A few weeks have passed since I received my friend’s email, so I’ve had time to reflect on what he said and realize how right he is. Ten years ago, firefighters were on top when it came to respect, prestige and support. Now, they are under attack. Ten years ago, the public witnessed many heroic acts by firefighters, including (but not limited to) the incredible courage and personal sacrifice displayed by FDNY members at the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. The outpouring of public support was significant. In the years that followed, firefighters and the fire service reaped the benefits of this elite public recognition.
About three years ago, however, at the onset of the recession, one could sense things were changing. If this shift goes unchecked, there could be an irreversible change in public support for firefighters that could seriously impact the overall level of influence held by the fire service at the national, state and local levels.
• Salaries, pensions and other benefits – Ten years ago, firefighters were considered underpaid and there was strong public sentiment that they should be better compensated. Because of obstacles to higher pay, pensions and other benefits were enhanced in many jurisdictions. Not only did pensions provide financial security in retirement, they also enhanced firefighter and public safety. Firefighting, EMS, hazmat and special operations are demanding and strenuous. It was thought that high levels of performance could be maintained by moving firefighters into retirement before their mid-50s. Public officials embraced this idea and developed total-compensation packages that offered better pay, realistic pension programs, adequate health insurance and other benefits.
• Outsourcing and privatization of emergency services – These are not new concepts. Local government agencies, including fire departments, have instituted these practices for many years with varying degrees of success. Fire departments have done so mostly in non-emergency functions. But now we see departments outsourcing and privatizing emergency services more than in the past. This is a dangerous path to take, for it will negatively impact service delivery, firefighter safety and the safety of the public. From a financial perspective alone, savings can be realized only by cutting corners in staffing, training, compensation and equipment.
• The economy and current political climate – We all understand the seriousness of the current economy and the need to stabilize budgets at all levels of government. But perhaps we lack a clear understanding of what caused this recession. No, it was not caused by the greed of firefighters, teachers, police officers and other government workers, as some would have you believe. Instead, this recession was created primarily by the greed and irresponsible acts of some of the most wealthy and influential people in our society. Firefighters have been unfairly derided for financial problems plaguing jurisdictions in our nation, yet firefighters throughout the country have willingly stepped up to help in these troubled times. They have taken reductions in pay, furloughs and days off, and are now making higher pension and health insurance contributions to help their employers balance their budgets. But this is not “news.” Instead, the headlines are about a few salary and pension abuses that are being represented as the norm.
The fire service has always had its detractors. In many cases, these people are not new players; they are simply acting out old agendas and using the current economic and political climates as tools to do so. We should not accept this.
We in the fire service must redouble our efforts to enhance our political standing and our public image beyond what we have achieved in the past. Our leaders must become even more innovative, efficient and progressive in managing our nation’s fire departments. We must work together to build, financially and operationally, more effective fire departments. This will create political and public support that is stronger than ever before. If we are willing to put forth a collective effort at all levels of government, perhaps the members of the fire service can look back in the year 2021 and say, as my friend did, “What a difference 10 years can make.”