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Whose Side Should We Take?

It would be my hope that all of you are well aware, by now, of the fire department in rural South Fulton, TN, which failed to extinguish a fire because of the failure of a family to pay their subscription fee. I am not at all shocked by the furor which this egregious event has spawned across the length and breadth of the fire service. This is not the first time this type of story has occurred in our nation. Perhaps it has traveled a lot farther and faster in this age of instant electronic media.

What did surprise me was the fact that my daughter came to me and asked me if I had heard about it. I told her that I had and gave her some of the salient facts regarding this type of fire department, as well as the rural nature of the community where it occurred. It seems as though she was following this story thread on a Facebook page with her firefighting buddies and was concerned that I had not heard of it. Bravo Katie for keeping the old Dadster in the loop.

This is a story with a message. That message is real simple. Fire protection is too important to be left to people who treat it like they were magazine salespeople working to make an extra buck on the side. Fire protection is a critical service and it should not be provided in an ill-advised and, frankly, half-assed manner.

What, you might ask, can I possibly offer to you regarding this matter? Let me start by sharing a bit of history with you. For those not aware of it, a great deal of our fire protection history comes from the insurance industry. In the early years of our nation, fire protection was often provided by insurance companies. In order to be protected, you had to pay your premium. Does that sound familiar?

Another important question should come up at this time. How would the firefighting teams back then know that you were protected by their company? The answer is really quite simple. When you paid your premium, you were issued a "fire mark" by that firm. You need only do a Google search to see what these fire marks were and what they looked like. I even have a representative sample on the wall of my office.

Over time, the fire protection trends in our nation moved away from the concept of having insurance companies provide our fire protection. However, did you know that as recently as a couple of years ago, the insurance industry in New York City still provided a Fire Patrol to assist the New York City Fire Department in the salvage and overhaul duties of their operations in the mercantile districts of lower Manhattan? They were taken out of service just a short time ago. Never lose sight of the fact that one member of the Fire Patrol, Keith Roma, was killed along with the 343 members of the New York Department on 9/11.

At some point in history, we became accustomed to having a volunteer organization, or some form of government provide our communities with fire protection and suppression services. There really is no definitive point in time at which I can point to say it all started there. Perhaps it is because of the many different ways in which fire protection evolved in America that I really cannot set up a series of solid points of reference.

However, let me suggest to you that all of these various means of providing fire protection had one major thing in common. Dedicated people came together to protect their communities from the devastation, disruption, and destruction which fire can visit upon a community. I really believe that fire protection is a bit too important to be provided to communities in the 21st Century in a manner seemingly more appropriately designed for subscribing to a magazine or a newspaper.

What I can never countenance is the thought of firefighters standing around doing nothing. I am offended that people such as these are allowed to wear the same gear and be looked upon as members of the same fire service as my fellow firefighters in Adelphia and Newark, NJ. I worry that people will think that we are all like those people who only sprung into action when the fire jumped to the home of someone who paid their subscription fee.

Let me also tell you another person who really angered me with the stupidity of their interview comments. He is Jeff Vowell, the city manager for South Fulton, TN. In defense of the actions of his fire department, he stated that, "...we have to follow the rules and the ordinances set forth to us, and that's exactly what we do." According to press reports, this process has been in effect for more than 20 years in South Fulton.

Do not think that you or I will get any support from the organizations which represent various levels of government in our nation. A great example of this comes from Jacqueline Byers with the National Association of Counties. In an article on ABC News.com she states that, "If the city starts fighting fires in the homes of people outside the city who don't pay, why would anyone pay?" Talk about a govern-style bean counter.

My friends, it is all about money. All I hear in my community is a hue and cry for lower taxes. But when asked if they want more services, people can always be counted upon to say, "...heck yes..." It just doesn't work that way. If you want, you pay. If I want gasoline for my car, I pay the guy at the gas station. If I want to fly to Indianapolis for the Fire Department Instructor's Conference, I pay Continental Airlines, and the list goes on and on.

It is really simple. If you want fire protection, you pay for it. You pay taxes, you attend roast beef dinners or pancake breakfasts; or you buy a Christmas tree from that group of guys and gals out there in the cold December weather. Let me assure you, however, that the days of providing fire protection with pancakes and potluck suppers is long past.

Ladies and gentlemen, my fire district is buying a new pumper and we are about to lay out $602,000 for it. How many pancake meals do you have to sell at $7 per person to buy such a vehicle? I did the math gang and it comes to 86,000 people buying one meal each. Our whole township only has 60,000 people and most of them do not come to us for breakfast at our twice-a-year event.

There is another question which might be asked. Do we need a new pumper? You bet your ass we do. I was not the one who invited the people who live in the 3,000-plus units of housing which were built within one mile of my 125-year-old home to come to Fire District #2 in Howell Township, NJ. However, I am chairman of the board of that same district and we have been given the responsibility by the voters of the area to do just that. So we do.

Time and again I keep hearing the phrase, "tax-strapped taxpayers." Heck, I pay taxes and probably a lot more than those people do down in Tennessee. I pay nearly $6,000 in property taxes and thank my lucky stars that I am paying a lot less than many of my buddies in the Adelphia Fire Company. What good is government if it fails to fulfill the sole reason for its existence? What is that sole reason for government's existence, you might ask? Plain and simple my friends, government exists to serve the people, but it cannot do the job without money.

Oh, there will be others who would push the rules and regulations part of government to keep order, but that is just a subset of the service to people. Let me push another one of today's hot buttons as it relates to this fire protection matter. How many members of government at the local, county, regional, state and national levels are in it just for what they can get out of it? More than one and less than 100 million I would suggest.

Folks, I have been a volunteer in one way or another for more than 40 years in both Freehold and Howell Townships here in New Jersey. Heck I drove the fire engine again yesterday morning and responded on a call this afternoon. With the exception of a very few years when my volunteer fire company provided an end of the year uniform stipend of a couple of hundred bucks, I have been a true volunteer since I first set foot in a Freehold First Aid Squad ambulance in 1964.

I have walked the streets of Freehold and Freehold Township seeking funds from a series of generally-unconcerned citizens. They had never called for an ambulance, so why should they give us any money. Heck I remember the time down on Center Street in Freehold when just 15 minutes after knocking on the door of a house and getting no answer, our ambulance was called to that house and we ended up transporting a pregnant lady to the hospital 30 minutes distant. She was never asked to pay and we never asked why they failed to answer our knock at the door. Nothing was said and we did not even get a thank you.

That is just the way it is with real volunteers my friends. I am not complaining, I am just telling the story like it really is. Let me also assure you that I would get up from my computer right now, should my services be needed up the street at the fire station.

Going back in time, there were countless July nights spent in Adelphia as a member of the carnival crew at our annual Adelphia Fire Company Carnival. It was a local tradition for many decades, but no longer exists because it became too much of a burden for us to handle in addition to the increase in fire calls and the growing demands for more firefighter training.

People have to make some serious decisions about their local fire departments. Far too many cities, towns, townships, villages, cities, and fire districts are nickel and diming their fire departments out of existence. Fire departments have been subject to severe cuts by unknowing and uncaring pencil-necked geek business administrators that are rendering them unable to provide even the most basic services which the public has come to expect.

I have written about the problems of Lawrence, MA, Keokuk, IA, and an unknown number of other fire departments where the decisions of people who can't tell a fire truck from a cement mixer are making decisions which put their communities at risk. People had best wake up.

There is a price to be paid if you want services from government. I learned a serious lesson many years ago. There are no free lunches. Even back in the old days when a local gin mill advertised a free lunch, there was an unsaid requirement that you had best buy a couple of beers while you were downing the cold cuts and potato salad. If you didn't you got tossed out the front door.

If people want lousy fire protection, they should just keep expecting us to do more with less. When I joined the Newark Fire Department in 1973, we had over 1,100 members operating 25 engine companies, 12 aerial ladders, a heavy rescue company, and a fully staffed fireboat. There were five battalion districts and three deputy divisions.

Things have changed a great deal over the years. With my brother's retirement on October 1, along with 32 other fire officers, and the planned retirements of 20 on November 1, and another 20 or so on December 1, the department's downward spiral continues.

With the shuttering of my old Battalion 1 assignment and the closure of four more engine companies, the department is now down to about 14 engines and eight ladder companies and less than 600 firefighters. They still have the fireboat and the heavy rescue, but the fireboat is now cross-manned by an engine company which is located many minutes from the Port Newark area where the boat is quartered. There is one deputy and three battalion chiefs on duty.

Newark is still the largest city in New Jersey. It still has the largest rail yard in the state and a major shipping harbor, along with a major international airport and a number major downtown high-rise occupancies. I sure hope someone in city hall knows what they are doing, but I tend to doubt it. The fire chief retired in protest over the budget cuts and staff layoffs which are still pending after all of the retirements I mentioned above. Yet, in spite of all of this, a city hall spokesman stated that fire protection would still be adequate.

Let me suggest that the debacle in Tennessee is just the latest in a growing list of mistakes which are happening because of the fact that citizens in America want more service, but are unwilling to pay more in taxes for it. Somebody had best "man up" on this issue, or we are going to see more buildings burn to the ground in places with understaffed and improperly funded fire departments.

Let me suggest that these are just a couple of thoughts from a guy who has been to a fire or two. And by the way, I am on the side of those who believe that the citizen deserves the best fire protection possible: Not just what the cheapskates, bean-counters, and pencil-necked geeks think we should have. We need to devote some solid research into how best to fund fire departments in this dumb-assed economic climate we all hear so much about. I'm just saying..."

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 published 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 drharrycarter@optonline.net.

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