We Reap the Harvest We Sow

When the frequency of an occurrence is drastically increased,  the exposure is prolonged or when the magnitude and impact of an incident are quite significant, people impacted tend to adjust and become desensitized after a while.

It has a numbing impact, and right, wrong, or indifferent, we just get used to it. Maybe not at first, but then gradually.

With the increased frequency of occurrence of an event, people simply adjust their norms and accept it as a non-event regular part of life.

For example, one or two fire or traffic accident deaths here or there is non-news and won't raise an eyebrow anymore. Except for those who were immediately impacted, we brush it aside thinking this doesn't impact me; and we mosey along with our lives.

The recent natural disasters have shown that when the magnitude of the tragedy is quite significant and the loses are enormous, after the initial shock wears off in a week or two and the realities sink in, self-preservation and survival gradually become more dominant and replace the initial selfless and dedicated communal mode of operation.

We have a hierarchy of priorities, and the perceived threats are dealt with in that very order. That is only natural and humans, even as social species have evolved this way.

Of course sometimes the true extent of the immediate threat or the long-term impact and consequences are not quite clear. Such ambiguities could lead to lack of urgency and lower the threat further down the priority list. Interestingly enough, it is in those cases, where the perceived adverse immediate impacts of such threats seem miniscule and tolerable, that we downplay the probabilities and may even ignore the long-term impacts.

Yet, it is precisely then that we must be cognizant of the consequences of our decisions, and acknowledge the wisdom in the old saying "you reap the harvest that you sow."

It all boils down to a simple question, are you willing to live with the consequences of your decisions?

Well, that principle applies to our economics decisions also; or at least logically, it was supposed to. Although everyone is passing the buck, and none of the top policy and decision-makers are assuming any faults or responsibility at all for the current dire economic conditions, the fact remains the same that we are paying the price for their poor decisions made in the past.

And based on their track records, the corrective measures taken today will have their own consequences also. And we will reap the harvest of what they sow today, down the line, sometimes in the future.

The powerful perfect economic storm that has been pounding us for the past few years has taken many casualties across the land. Most Americans can attest to the crippling effect and the enormity of the adverse economic impacts of this prolonged global recession that has plagued our country.

While Wall Street seems to be bouncing back, the Main Street is still hurting. Across the land, the local economies are still weak, budgets are extremely tight, unemployment is quite high and jobs are rather scarce. This prolonged and severe economic recession has resulted in millions of jobs being lost. As a result, it is a "dog-eat-dog world" out there, where survival and self-preservation, are the main modes of operation.

All of us in the fire service, whether career, combination, or volunteer departments, are fighting to survive during these massive budget cuts. In all municipalities, we are competing with all the other departments and agencies for the same shrinking dollars and the much needed resources are scarce and infrequent to come about.

These days, when you look at the many fire service publications and websites, you read about the many brown outs, station closures, and firefighter layoffs that most fire departments across the country are facing. Unfortunately, there are too many of them.

And other than a quick glance, since most of us are grappling with similar situations in our own jurisdictions and fighting for our own survival, we might not even give it a second look.

But amongst all those, one of them in particular caught my eye recently. What was different about this one was the fact that there were many other fire service organizations that stood in solidarity and by the side of the organization whose budget was slashed. That I believe is admirable and a good example for us all to remember.

On Jan. 8, 2010, I was reading the Daily Dispatch news on the Western Fire Chiefs Associations website, and I saw a posting by the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association's (AFCA) titled "Division News From Arizona - Suspension of State Fire Marshal Programs." Do please use the two links attached below, and read the news release and the Memo in its entirety.

Briefly, due to the financial problems that the State of Arizona is currently facing, a very severe budget cut was imposed on the Arizona Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM). On Jan. 7 OSFM issued a memorandum that announced a reduction in staff and indicated that they are suspending the majority of their inspections, abolishing their training and certification programs and, along with the many other tasks eliminated, they will no longer support or offer assistance for the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).

Under the umbrella of the Arizona Fire Service Institute (AFSI), which is comprised of Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, Arizona Fire Districts Association, Professional Firefighters of Arizona, Volunteer Fire Fighters of Arizona, and the Metro Fire Chiefs Section objected to this budget cut, and were adamantly opposed to the suspension of the OSFM programs.

They clearly recognized the fact that the severe budget cut that the bean-counters had imposed on the OSFM, could have serious adverse impacts not only on the public, but also on the firefighters. Training and certification programs are an essential part of the firefighters' qualifications and development.

The lack of which would have adverse impact on the safety of the public. And, the fire prevention role that the OSFM plays, is of utmost importance to the very many communities large and small across the state.

But we must ask, do the top policy and decision-makers realize that? I am not talking about this specific case in Arizona either, since what is happening there could happen to most of us in many other states.

Are the state legislators and elected officials aware of what is truly at stake? Do they clearly understand what we do, day-in and-day-out? Do they realize the long-term impact and consequences of their decisions on the safety of our communities?

Is our public fully aware of these issues? Would the public be willing to jeopardize their own safety and the safety of their communities by eliminating essential public safety programs?

In my mind, the key then is to focus our efforts on better educating our public and our elected officials ahead of time. We must provide them with a true community risk assessment and fire loss management plan. This will allow them to make well-informed decisions based on the community's needs and the availability of current resources while being fully cognizant of the long-term impacts of such decisions.

I believe that is exactly what we must do right now, before the budget axe drops.   It is more important now than ever before, for the fire service to self-promote and better educate our public and the elected officials, about the importance of all of the various fire prevention, suppression, and the emergency medical response services that we provide; lack of which would undoubtedly impact the safety of our public one way or other. Our public should be fully aware of the impact of the policy-makers' decisions and decide whether they would be willing to accept the consequences of those decisions for many decades to come. Once again, being proactive is the key.

But then, there are times that we are forced to merely react.

Remember, that we reap the harvest that we sow, right? If we are behind the eight-ball, what should we do then?

Take it on the chin and accept the loss or play the cards that we are dealt, and do the best that we can under the circumstances? As they say, can we make lemonade out of the lemons?

I believe that the leadership and the unified actions of the fire service organizations in Arizona gave us a good example of how to deal with such adverse situations.

On Jan. 22,  the Western Fire Chiefs Association posted another article on their website titled "Arizona Fire Chiefs Association Issues Position Statement on Recent OSFM Cuts."

Again, the link to this article is attached below and I encourage you all to read it in detail. I am sure that just like I, you will also appreciate the unified stance and the strong leadership that AFSI has displayed in making the best out of their current crisis.

Here is how they explained the extent and impact of the problem: "We have spent over 20 years working with the OSFM, and working through some difficult issues to build a good program. However abolishing the training and certification functions of the State Fire Marshal's office along with the suspension of National Incident Reporting System coordination and State Resources Tracking in support of Statewide Mutual Aid is taking a huge step back and as a state, we're worse off in these critical areas than we were before the Fire Marshal's office was established 1970."

What is truly admirable though is the fact that the fire service organizations in Arizona are rolling up their sleeves to help the OSFM, and do the best that can to salvage some of the services that were unfortunately discontinued.

They indicated that "We are trying our best to work toward a unified solution that doesn't leave the state's training program fragmented and inadequate. The AFCA, along with other major Arizona fire service groups, including labor, volunteers, districts and metro departments, is currently conducting meetings to determine how such a transition might work so the training curriculum, coordination and certification process isn't lost."

My friends, this is not only about this particular case in Arizona. It could happen to all of us in our own states. We must truly appreciate the important role of the office of the state fire marshal in our own states, and be prepared to defend them the best that we can.

Despite some minor organizational challenges that we might have had in dealing with them here or there, never doubt that they are part of the fire service family, and they serve us all well. Their organizational well-being is crucial to us all, whether volunteer, combination, or career fire departments.

That all being said they deserve all our support.

On that note, I want to personally thank Phil Mele, the Arizona State Fire Marshal, and wish him the best on his retirement. On Jan. 22, after more than 33 years, Phil turned in his "Notice of Intent To Retire From State Service" effective March 26 (see attached).

I know that times are tough and our hands our tied. But, despite all that, it is even more important now than ever before, for us all to intensify our lobbying efforts and further increase our public education and advocacy at all levels of government. We must work harder to market our product of community fire protection and life safety to our customers, our public and their elected representatives.

We must better educate our public about the services we provide, the magnitude of the fire problem, and the consequences of their decisions.  And that goes for our public officials too.  When the elected officials are better informed about the basic concepts of community risk assessment and integrated risk management, then they could hopefully make better decisions in performing their responsibilities in mitigating hazards and protecting their communities.  

They must be fully well aware of the probability and true magnitude of failure, and be willing to accept the long-term impact and consequences of their decisions on their communities' levels of life safety and fire protection.  Without such cost/benefit analysis, across-the-board blind budget cuts, will undoubtedly have devastating impacts not only on our communities' fire protection and life safety, but also on the safety of our own firefighters for many decades to come.

It is important that our policy and decision-makers realize the wisdom in the old saying that "you reap the harvest that you sow".

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.