The year 2003 is upon us. Once again, we find ourselves on the doorstep of yet another new year. It is a time to pause and ponder upon what has transpired in the year just past. It is also the traditional time to give voice to our hopes and dreams for the coming year.
Each New Year that we approach offers us a fresh slate upon which we have the opportunity to draw the designs that constitute our lives, our careers, and our families. We sincerely hope that good things will hap
pen to our friends, our families, and us for as Alexander Pope stated so eloquently, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast". Unfortunately, there are some blips on our radar screen that do not look promising. Once again, we see a year ahead where the possibility exists that some old problems may once again be revisited upon us.
Let me offer a bit of my personal philosophy to guide your journey into the immediate future. It has been my experience that the years come and the years go. This is inevitable. People come and people go. This too is a part of life. Old friends occasionally pass on and, if we are truly fortunate, new people will step into our lives that will become our new friends. This is truly a blessing. Therefore, it has been since time immemorial.
My friends, family, and I have been most fortunate in that 2002 was a good year. We lost a minimum of old friends, and met a nice variety of people with whom friendships will hopefully develop over time. We must nurture all of these new relationships to give them time to strengthen and grow.
Many fine people from around North America have taken the time to share their thoughts, dreams, and experiences with me during 2002. Because of them and their stories of their sad states of affairs, I have been able to create many of the commentaries you have seen this year. Many others have also made first-rate suggestions for topics to study.
As much as I would like to thank each of them, I cannot. The reasons are varied and odd. If I thanked some people, others who were forgotten would be offended. That would not be good. Were I to offer thanks to some who have requested anonymity, it could cost them and still other folks their jobs, or subject them to the ridicule of their friends and associates. Many like to read what I say and a great many even agree with my ramblings. However, their praise might not be so swell if they were to discover that they had been the troops to whom I was pointing the barbs of my insults.
As a matter of fact, one correspondent got into trouble just because one of his bosses thought that the commentary sounded like their fire department. I offer my distinct apologies to that man who took the hit because I failed to better hide our relationship. I would hope that his boss would someday awaken to the job that having an actual life can bring.
I want to express my sincere thanks to the thousands of you who have taken the time to put finger to keyboard. You have shared your lives, yourselves, and your stories with me. You have made me feel that I am a part of untold numbers of fire department families out there across North America. It was as though I was privileged to sit at the kitchen table in your fire station, drinking coffee and kibitzing with the troops. As a retired, big-city battalion chief who loved making rounds with the troops within my battalion district, thank you for taking their place in my life.
Let me now take my turn at looking forward. Let me offer some thoughts about what would be nice to see happen in the year 2003. Maybe I am an eternal optimist, but I continue my hunt for a time and place when our politicians, administrators, and chief officers finally get it, when they finally come to an understanding of our true value as a resource in their community.
Each year I continue my search for heroes. I continue searching for that honest man or women who will stand up and tell the story about what fire protection really is, and what it takes to deliver an effective service to the citizens who are paying the tab for their own safety. I may have encountered reports of that person.
In reviewing Internet, traffic this past week I believe I have found a chief willing to stand up for his principles, his people, and his community. His name is Christopher LeClaire, and he is the Fire Chief in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His comments to his local newspaper speak volumes regarding his passion for his community and his fire department.
It would appear that he feels the local politicians are acting in a heavy-handed manner. In order to get an early entry in the 2004 version of the "Who Can Top This" competition among flatulent, fawning, political figures, they have forecast that a flat 2004 budget will be needed. That?s right my friends, these parsimonious politicos are pole-vaulting right over 2003 and getting everyone all fired up over a year that is a year away. Why not try doing something positive in 2003?
According to a December 19, 2002 article in the Portsmouth (NH) Herald, Chief LeClaire is quoted as stating that, "It is my job as the fire chief to recommend to the city and its residents the fire protection they need," LeClaire said. "That is why I cannot support any reduction to the staff. We are already running at levels that are below safety standards."
I am so proud. Here is a man who is telling the powers that be that he is already having trouble trying to get the job done with a short staff. He has correctly identified his role as an advocate for the citizens. He is also working to address safety issues for his staff. The politicians, on the other hand, are only concerned with dollar bills. Like most politicians, they are deathly afraid of raising taxes.
Sometimes folks, you just have to dig a little deeper into your pockets to get the job done. Coming from New Jersey, I feel well qualified to speak on the issue of taxes. A bit of research into my personal tax files tells the story. Since 1990, my taxes have gone up nearly 60 percent. I want to assure you that my salary (and now my pension) has not gone up by that figure.
Nonetheless, I understand why taxes must go up. Oddly enough, it is also the politicians who did that to us too. In my community, the politicians sold the town to developers more than three decades ago. I do not want you to think that there was an actual sale held down at our town hall. It just seems as though the evidence points in that direction. Perhaps there were shenanigans, however, I cannot not show you the pictures of money changing hands, it is just that, well, it looks real fishy to me. Certain developers just seem to be able to build whatever they want, so I will just tell you that we are living with the results. Thousands of units of housing have been built within one air mile of my home, so I don?t have to look far for the evidence.
Knowing that politicians alone are not sharp enough to pull off the really big scams, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has continued to legislate by fiat and court order over the past several decades. They are still telling every town in New Jersey how many houses to build and to whom these unwanted homes are to be sold. So much for the protections supposedly provided by the judiciary.
As I look out of the window of my office, I can see one of the primary products of these court decisions. More than 350 units of condominium housing have arisen on what was once a lovely farm field behind my home. Most of these homes have the requisite 2.2 children who must be schooled. It is in this exchange that the real loss of value is shown.
These homes are paying about $4,000 to $5,000 in taxes. In my town, it costs well over $7,000 per year to educate a student. That means there is a net loss of somewhere between $10,000 and $11,000 dollars per year, and I think I am on the low side. In the midst of this, our board of fire commissioners is actually going to lower our tax rate in Fire District #2. Unfortunately, our efforts will be trampled by the rampant spending of the school board that is racing to build several new schools for those scores of 2.2-children families.
Enough of my tale of woe about Howell Township let me return to the problems in New England. The Portsmouth Herald story goes on the explain:
"The City Council instructed city departments to craft their fiscal year 2004 budgets as though they will have no more money to spend next year than they have this year. If the fire department is asked to cram 2004 costs and contractual obligations into their 2003 budgets, one of three stations will close, sacrificing an ambulance and, potentially, a ladder truck staffed with one officer and three firefighters including a paramedic. Seven people will lose their jobs including the executive secretary, four firefighters, a deputy chief and a fire marshal, eliminating the fire prevention division."
To Chief LeClaire, this constitutes an unreasonable risk to the citizens and fire department of Portsmouth. Hats off to Chief LeClaire for having the intestinal fortitude to tell the real story. Perhaps he is on the cutting edge of a new trend. Fire service leaders with guts, rather than fire service leaders with kneepads and kneeling pillows are what I envision. I realize that Chief LeClaire may be an anomaly, however, that doesn?t stop me from hoping and dreaming that others will join him.
Given what I have read in the newspapers recently, Chief LeClaire may be in the forefront of our next major battle. At least 40 of the 50 states are facing substantial budgetary problems. We as a fire service had best be circling the wagons. We need to come up with a strategy that portrays our true worth to society. It may be that we will be burned back to the stone ages if the politicians once again seek to have their way with us.
You only need look back to the late 1970?s and early 1980?s to observe the things that our current younger generation of firefighters has not seen in their lifetimes. It was Proposition 13 in California that placed severe limits on spending. It was Proposition 2-1/2 in Massachusetts. Other places did the same things without fancy names. Boston was rocked by layoffs. My fire department in Newark saw 66 firefighters laid off for periods up to two years. Fire departments that had weathered the Great Depression of the 1930?s without layoffs were letting people go.
As I am so fond of saying folks, history repeats itself. If you want to be ready for tomorrow, I urge you to study yesterday. I would urge you to begin getting ready for the budgetary battles that lie just ahead. I would urge you to arm yourself with three critical elements:
Be sure to have a sufficient array of facts to support your position. Show what you can do, and provide justification for that level of service. Be honest, but be forthright. You must have the figure to prove your points. Lastly, you need to create support within your community. This will allow you to have friends that can step forward at community meetings to make the point that fire departments provide a real, solid, and important community service.
You have heard it here first. Bad times lie ahead. I would only hope that you have the guts of a Christopher LeClaire to assist you in your battle to maintain a reasonable level of fire protection services. Let us all keep Chief LeClaire in our thoughts and prayers as he battles to keep his community and his troops safe.