Times are really tough my friends. It seems to me that just about every politician in the United Stated is stumbling along the road of life mumbling the same sorry mantra: "We have to cut -- We have to cut -- We have to cut." When you can pin them down long enough to ask a question or two you get part two of the mantra: "Poor economy -- Poor economy -- Poor economy." These people seem to have all the mental stamina of a punch drunk boxer from the old movies. For me to say that they seem somewhat confused is a rank understatement.
Powerful forces are running amuck in our country. People within governments from coast to coast are doing things under the guise of economic distress. We hear new stories everyday about how the economic downturn has lead to a decrease in revenue across the board in America. I am concerned that people are not telling us the real story. More than that, I think they are pitching long-held selfish personal agendas under the guise of the current fiscal woes.
When was the last time that you saw a slight up-tick in the economy without it being accompanied by an equal (or far worse) downturn somewhere? I believe that one of the main reasons we are not coming out of this recession is that the news media are all concerned that they would have nothing to report if we did.
The guts of this article have been rumbling around in my brain (and my gut) for some time now. Not a day seems to pass without some political entity (local, county, state or federal), or the appointed bureaucratic henchmen (or henchwomen, if that is an appropriate term) of that entity uttering something really stupid or inane. How can these people, I ask myself, be so out of touch with the reality of what you and I are doing in and for our communities?
Then the answer comes to me. They do not care about you and me! I do not want to think that this answer is really that case, but what is a boy to do when faced with the repeated stupidity which we see on an almost daily basis? How else can you explain the repeated cuts to our budgets and the asininity of their actions and their comments? How else can you explain the drive by some people to combine police and fire into a single agency?
Let me assure you that I have been pausing and pondering just how to address my thoughts on this matter. Let me now share an important part of my thought processes with you. Back in late May I spent some really valuable time teaching in the great state of Nebraska. It was my good fortune to be allowed the privilege of sharing some of my wisdom and experience with a really neat group of folks at the Nebraska State Fire School in Grand Island.
During the course of my three days in class, I was privileged to run most of the ideas about the current problems with the state of our economy past my students. They were a most reflective and respectful group. Not only were they in agreement with me, they took the time to broaden a few of my thoughts just a bit with their own experiences. They also strongly suggested that I should share them with you. So here goes.
My friends, it would seem to me that these challenging economic times are bringing out the worst in some people. If the messages, phone calls, newspaper articles and website pieces I have reviewed are any indication of what is going on, then that is truly the case. I am of the opinion that some really simple minded people are coming to the fore. Worse yet, they cloak themselves within the dignity of government and believe themselves to be blessed with a certain aura of mental superiority. In reality, I see them as part of the latest generation of self-absorbed dumb-asses.
They seem to be filling the airwaves with chorus, after the chorus of whining, moaning, and groaning. No one is interested in compromising on anything. Solid debate is taken as a sign of weakness. And lying, dishonesty, and deceit seem to be the order of the day in far too many places. Behavior which would get you kicked out of your local fire department is now the new standard in the halls of Congress (see also the name Congressman Wiener).
All of their acts, actions, and activities tell me one thing. They send out a message which is loud and clear. I offer to you that it is a message which you ignore at your own peril. My friends, there is a new and clueless group of class clowns running amuck in America. You can see them on the television news shows, read about them in your local newspaper, and follow them on the blog-o-sphere universe of the Internet. Worse yet, they now seem to be running our country, or in my case, the great Garden State of New Jersey.
In this visit with you, I will be sharing some of the seemingly clueless comments that I have gathered over the past few weeks. These are not old stories by any means. In fact, if I were writing a script for the world of my favorite old 1940's movies, these stories would be listed as having been "torn from the pages of today's newspapers (Internet, web, or website)." They are out there today as I add these words to my computer.
Let me begin with the continual babbling of the politicians that you and I can and must do more with less. If ever there was a sound bite that created more confusion, I would like to hear it. In the living of the first six decades of my life I have learned one lesson among many. The only thing which I have found that I can do with less is less. Let me share a personal example with you.
My wife and I would like to make some alterations to the Carter Mansion here in beautiful, downtown Adelphia. There are things which could be done to enhance the suburban living experience of our family. However, we have run head-on into a clash of priorities. How can I make the improvements and provide a beautiful wedding for my daughter Ellen next year? Which is it going to be: daddy's little girl, or daddy's old garage? Of course you know that my daughter comes before my garage.
However, there are people in my community who want my fire department to make due with less. They offer no options. Their mantra is simple: "Cut -- Cut -- Cut!" These are the people who never bother to take a real look at their tax bill to see where their money is headed. They just bitch and moan and treat my buddies and I as though we were trying to hold them up at gunpoint.
Let me share an example of the depth and range of this stupidity with you. My wife and I pay around $6,000 per year in property taxes. I am not complaining, I am just saying, because many of my buddies in the fire company pay a lot more. Out of that $6,000, a grand total of $183.21 goes to our fire district in the form of a fire tax. Are you kidding me? I am paying over $4,100 for the schools from which my children graduated in the late 1990's. But people are busting my chops over the fire tax.
As a matter of fact, the mentally-challenged political people in our state government consider fire districts to be a useless form of government which should be consigned to the ash heap of history in the name of shared service and progress. They want to tie everything together in a shared services package. This sounds good, but it would ruin an effective system which has been working for many decades now.
Now I am not against shared services. Heck, my fire department is part of an excellent shared services arrangement. Maybe you have heard of it. It is known in my area as mutual aid (with a healthy dose of automatic aid tossed in for good measure). Unfortunately, our political people do not see effective operations on an inter-community basis as a form of shared services. These dead-headed twits say shared services when they really mean, place all fire departments (and a wide range of other agencies) on a starvation diet of devastating budgetary cuts.
One needs to look no further than the city of Camden, NJ, for a perfect example of how budget cuts can devastate a fire department. Approximately one third of the department was laid off due to budget cuts. The politicians assured all who would listen that there would be no impact upon the department's service delivery system. If this is the case, then I should be able to look myself in the mirror and wish away the unwanted pounds which I have been totting around since the Eisenhower Administration was in charge in Washington.
However, this is not the case. You cannot make something happen just because you wish it to be so. Let me share how my late mother-in-law would have looked at this issue. She had a saying I want to share with you. See if it applies here. Mom was fond of saying that, "…if wishes were horses beggars would ride."
Over the past few weeks, major fires have struck Camden. How was the city able to handle these disasters? They were only able to eventually bring theses blazes under control through the use of massive amounts of mutual aid. A buddy from Camden County filled me in on the real inside story. It seems that at the height of the 12-alarm fire, there were units from three counties and just about every fire department in Camden County in attendance. A large mutual aid contingent was also in place for the next day's 8-alarm edition.
Guess who is now paying for fire protection in Camden? Every town in Camden County is, that's who. Oh, and by the way, every citizen in the state is paying a share too. Camden has been under state control for many years now, and the bulk of their operating capital comes from the state treasury. OMG! How stupid do these people think you and I are? Yet the mumblings of these mealy-mouthed political mongrels would lead you to believe that all is well. Let me now move to another level of government to continue this tale of woe.
I would like to share the story of the mind-dead municipal council member. I have known this person for a number of years and frankly when I first heard the following story, I did not believe it. However, I was assured by the long-time friend who shared it with me that it is, indeed, true. My friend is the fire chief in his community. It has been his chosen lot in life to step to the fore and lead his local fire department. Let me point out to you that he has been battling with his local government over many things. This time it is the need for new turnout gear which lies at the heart of his problems.
For some reason, his local government appears to lack the ability to understand the English language. My buddy has done his homework. He has taken the time to study the laws in New Jersey which govern fire department operations. Under the rules of the public employee occupational safety and health (PEOSHA) law, no firefighter may be allowed to wear ripped or worn turnout gear. Further, no firefighter may wear turnout gear once it reaches the 10-year service mark. These are the unbendable rules by which all of us most abide. In fact, my fire district has a replacement plan in effect which insures that all gear is replaced on a cycle which meets the intent of state law.
At a recent meeting of the governing body which he serves, he began to lay out the needs of his agency. As he was making his case, a member of council cut in on him and told him that it was time for the members of the volunteer fire department to start buying their own gear. My friend was stopped dead in his tracks.
He looked that person straight in the eye and asked if they were aware of the cost of this critical personal protective package. When informed that the gear cost somewhere between $2,000 and 3,000 per set, depending on the brand and size of the equipment needed, that person was heard to say that if they really wanted to be volunteer firefighters, they would put up the money.
My friends, I must join with you in asking whether this person is on some form of hallucinogenic drug. It might also be necessary for me to ask from what planet they hail. That is simply a dumbass statement if ever I heard one. This person persisted with this line of thinking even after they were informed that state law requires the safety equipment to be supplied by the employer. OMG! From under what rock do these people suddenly emerge?
My final story today comes from the southern part of the Garden State of New Jersey. Let me now state that another variant of this cheapskate parade is taking place in South Jersey. A number of weeks ago, a local newspaper quoted the mayor of West Wildwood as suggesting that the town government should stop paying for their local fire department. That person suggested that it was time for the local volunteer fire department to step up to the plate and start running more fundraisers. It sounds like this person has not really looked at the numbers.
In addition to the fire district budget, my fire company still conducts a mail fundraising campaign and a couple of pancake breakfast events. There is one around Christmas and another around Easter. While they are called fundraisers, how much money do they really bring in? I spoke to one of the pancake committee members to gain some insight into this. I was told that after the expenses are paid, we probably make about $3 per meal on an $8 fee for the adults (children less of course).
Let me now offer this example to the mayor of that southern New Jersey town. I just signed a number of checks to pay for the fire district's new rescue-pumper unit. The total was just shy of $690,000. Let's see, at $3 per pancake breakfast, we would have to sell a total of 230,000 breakfasts. Good, we now have a starting point.
Since I live in a town of about 60,000 people, that would work out to about 3.8 breakfasts for every man, woman, and child in town. But wait a minute. How many might not like pancakes? How many might be in need of gluten-free diets? And how many might live in one of the four other fire districts? Truth be told, we only have about 15,000 people living in our part of town, so now we would have to have every man, woman, and child purchase and consume 15.33 breakfasts.
Do you see my point here? The days of running a fire department on a shoestring are gone; at least in my part of the world. Further, in those places where the funds are scarce, so is the proper equipment. As the chairman of a board of fire commissioners here in Howell Township, I am well aware of the cost of doing business in our fire service. I sign the checks every month.
That is why I believe so many of these political people are out of touch with reality. Perhaps folks have been sucking down too much of the fumes on the northern end of the New Jersey Turnpike. Or perhaps others have taken in too much of the salt air in our shore towns. Or maybe they have been listening to the rants, ravings, and rock and roll of our Governor, Chris Christie. I cannot tell for sure.
Let me close this commentary with a short disclaimer. I wrote the bulk of this piece before hearing word of the problems with Congressman Wiener from New York. Let me assure all of you that my commentary is referring to a whole different class of wieners. Or is it? I leave you to ponder the words I have shared with you.
- See Harry Live! Lt. Dr. Harry Carter, will be presenting "The Leadership/Followership Equation: The Key to Fire Department Success" at Firehouse Expo, July 19 - 23, in Baltimore.
HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Follow Harry on his A View From my Front Porch blog. He recently several texts, including Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.