A dear friend asked me an important question the other day. He asked, quite simply "where did Harry Carter go?" When I asked him what he meant, his answer was simple, direct, and to the point. What ever happened to the Harry Carter who sallied forth to kick some serious fire service butt and maybe, just maybe, take some names?
I was stunned by the directness of his question. Was I not still Harry Carter? My favorite local bank was still cashing checks made out to Harry Carter. All of the bills still had Harry Carter's name on them. So I must still be Harry Carter. Right?
As he and I wove the magic tapestry of a conversation between dear friends, his point became evident. My words of late have become more about me than you. Somewhere along the line I forgot that you, my dear friends around the country, were the reason for my weekly visits with you. I am sure many of you sensed this, but were too kind to comment. So in line with my bent for the academic, a bit of research was undertaken to address this matter.
Do you know how long it has been since I have kicked anyone or anything in the butt on your behalf? If my reading of my own words is correct, the year was 2003 and the topics were Homeland Security and Tom Ridge. By God that was a great set of words. The title of the first telling treatise was Do Not Tell Me it is Raining. That blast from the heart was followed up a week later with a rejoinder entitled Upon Further Reflection.
In those two works my words bashed the powers that be in our government for pulling a bait and switch on the fire service. The first commentary was toned down on the advice of a friend, after I was informed that the White House would not let Secretary Ridge come to the Caucus Dinner and face the wrath of a fire service protest orchestrated by yours truly.
If you recall, my words at that time reported faithfully on what was said to us all in Washington back then. It was my promise to you at that time that my task would involve watching what the feds were doing: for us or to us. Then somewhere along the line I lost it friends. My feet veered from the path charted for you. In the midst of my desire to see the system to work, I set back and let events run their course without commenting.
It was a serious mistake on my part to do this for you see the system was never designed to help us in the fire service. For the past several weeks a number of issues have been running around loose in my brain. How those thoughts should be addressed caused me many a puzzling moment. The issues of homeland security and terrorism have really been ticking me off lately. I have also been pondering the fate of the National Fire Academy, the U. S. Fire Administration, and a number of other critical matters. Time has been spent comparing the actualities of the year 2005 with the predictions made by me in years past. Let me hereby announce for one and all to hear that "I told you so."
I might be wrong my friends but it is my belief we need to get our act together. We as a service have enjoyed some successes, however the fact remains that the fire service has become lost in a world gone mad with thoughts of terrorism, and worries about weapons of mass destruction. We are awash in a sea of homeland security consultants who wouldn't know what a fire truck looked like even if you held them by the hand and led them over to touch one.
Millions have been spent on homeland security, and are we really any more secure because of the blizzard of bucks being blown across the landscape of our great nation? The use of $300,000 to buy garbage trucks in Newark is only the tip of the iceberg.
What makes the Newark situation more egregious is the fact the feds are agreeing with Newark on this matter. Yeah, you can buy garbage trucks if you want, so what. Sure, sure, they can be used to transport body parts. What a load of hooey. If the picture of your loved ones being toted away to their final resting place in a Newark garbage truck is not troubling enough, think about this?
The Newark Fire Department's apparatus fleet is ailing. Many days there are apparatus breakdowns. There are no solid spares in the fleet. The fleet is aged, and no great efforts are being made to change that. Maybe the $300,000 spent on a new garbage truck would not fully fund a new fire vehicle, but it sure could go a long ways down the right road. Should we take the acquisition of garbage trucks with homeland security money as a sign from above that something is wrong with our national priorities? You can bet your fireman's boots on that one.
Periodically I wish that someone in government would just own up to the fact that the terrorists have seemingly won the war. I can hear the booing now. "Oh Harry, you cannot say that, it is so unpatriotic." Bull ----!!
I have a veteran's right to say what I feel on this matter. Like some of you, I served my country in time of war. Twenty-six years of devoted service in the active and reserve armed forces of our nation have earned me the right to share my opinion with you. Here it comes.
We have been turned into a nation of Nervous Nellie's who allow their own grandmothers to be strip-searched by people wearing white shirts, black pants, and rubber gloves. How can we claim to be winning the war on terror when we are now forced to submit to a level of security that borders on something dreamed up by the Third Reich in Nazi Germany?
Let me tell you that if I hear one more person tell me about how many of their rights they will gladly give up, if they could just be safe and secure, I think I will vomit. Let me offer the words of Ben Franklin on this matter. If you would care to check, he was the man who said, "Those who give up liberty for the sake of security deserve neither liberty nor security."
Last year on my way back from the Fire Rescue International Conference, I witnessed an abomination on the face of this earth. I saw a Past National Commander of the Jewish War Veterans run through the mill by the security force at the airport in New Orleans last year.
That distinguished-looking, elderly gentleman was frail and wheelchair- bound, yet the security forces of our nation made the man stand up, take his belt off and endure the humiliation of a close frisking. Here was a man, a member of the Greatest Generation, who served honorably in defense of freedom being treated like a criminal. I was saddened beyond belief.
Folks, please hear me out. There may be a terrorist attack. There may not be a terrorist attack. Much like comedian Dennis Miller, I can only assure you that the words in this commentary are my opinion, and I could be wrong. People want absolute guarantees of security. No can no amigos. I cannot give you a guarantee about anything in this life, except death and probably taxes; they both seem fairly certain.
What I suggest to you is that we need to get out of the realm of the "what-if" and come back into the world of "what-is". I am referring to an issue near and dear to the hearts of all: firefighter safety and health. My friends, firefighters are dying and it seems that this occurrence is happening more often that any of us would like.
Here is the reality of life my dear friends. If a terrorist wants to kill people, they will. If a few people, out of the millions who come to our country every year, want to conspire to kill you or me they will. Terrorists usually succeed because they are able to hide in the shadows of the world and thrive on surprise. The size of the world, the openness of our society, and the large number of people who hate our guts makes it probable that this might happen again.
However is that probability of terrorist attack greater than the probability of a firefighter dying in the next three days? Will there be a terrorist attack before our next firefighter is called home to the Lord? If you asked me to bet on which it would be, my dollars would be bet against the stack of chips put forward when our next brother or sister dies.
While we are dabbling in the federal world of homeland security possibilities one terrible reality is staring us in the face. Firefighters are dying in numbers that seem to be creeping up again. That is a here and now problem which we have to attack. Let us grab the bull by the horns, or wherever else you might like to grab the bull.
Let me suggest a course for us all to consider. We all must become more concerned with saving the lives of our firefighters every day of the week than training them for some Alfred Hitchcock-type of mythical terror scenario. I don't want to play down the fact that a lot of people out there really hate our guts, and want to do us harm. However, that fact is lodged within the nebulous world of possibilities.
The reality is that about every two and a half days someone amongst us is dying. Our people are dying in the here and now and it ain't weapons of mass destruction that are killing them. We know why they are dying, yet we keep our heads buried in the sand. Let us return some of the balance toward the operational forces in their daily battles as America's First Responders. There is a new battle to be fought, and it is a domestic battle against complacency and ignorance.
There will be those offended by what I have said. To these potential pilasters of the palace of the status quo, I say Tough Tortugas. We need more money for firefighter training, health and safety, and staffing. While the government is worrying about protecting containers in our shipping harbor, let them also worry about people like you and me who are protecting the Mrs. Smiths of the world, as my friend Alan Brunacini is so fond of saying.
Billy Goldfeder is my hero when it comes to kicking people in the kiester. I fell off of the spot I held next to him on the limb of controversy. I am sorry that I left you out there by yourself on the limb of butt-kicking commentary Billy old buddy. We all know that the time to act is now.
The first thing we can do is understand that being a dumb ass is something which lies within the skill set of each and every member of the fire service. Heaven knows that you have seen me show the brown flag now and again. We need to be training our people in such a way that they are ready for the reality of life every day. We need to limit the dumb-ass quotient.
The second thing is that we must all understand there is no "one best way" to do anything. Let us share what we know. The third thing we must do involves a dose of common sense. Do not place our people in dangerous places unnecessarily. Our fire service needs to get back to that critical old skill known as reading a building.
These are the things that you and I must work at every day of the week. While we could use a greater level of resource funding from the federal government, we do not need a mandate from Washington, DC to commit ourselves to training our selves and our people to live for tomorrow. We need to change the culture of death to a culture of life. I am not saying that we should stop honoring the people who die in the line of duty. It is right and proper to pay respect.
What I am saying that the celebration of death as a mark of being a tough guy or gal has to stop. I think that the picture of funeral cortege needs to be replaced by the picture of the father holding his son when he gets back from a tough fire, or the mother holding her child after a tough shift in the fire station.
We need to create a culture that recognizes and values the importance of life and the impact of realistic training on keeping people alive. In order to provide the resources for this type of training, we must also create a clamor for full funding of our federal fire programs. Oh yeah, we could use higher dollar numbers, but damn it, we must tell Congress to give us what they promised us when they wrote the legislation.
Stop cutting the FIRE BILL funding level! Put some serious money into the SAFER program! Fully fund the training of our fire service at the National Fire Academy, so that our future leaders can be trained. And by all means invite some knowledgeable upper-level fire officers into the world of homeland security.
Our fire world needs a greater voice within the world of DHS. This is a position strongly advocated by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and it is one with which I heartily agree. There I have said it and I am happy.
God bless Jack Peltier and Pat McGinley for being my friends.