Recently it has been my sad duty to note that there has been a significant drop in the level of fire protection that many communities have. This is not in just one area, but it exists in a wide number of different areas of our nation. I have seen this in communities of every size. I have seen this in career, and combination, as well as volunteer departments. Far too many appear to be taking a knock-out punch from their political and administrative leaders.
As an observer of the fire service scene, I have chosen to take a close look at the reasons why fire departments appear to take a disproportionate hit at budget time. Please stay with me as I will begin this by acknowledging my bias in favor of the fire service. Heck, it has been my life for the better part of five decades. We must all recognize a number of things:
• Crime pays (at least for the growing of local police budgets).
• Fare too many fire departments are unaware of how big they should be, how many people they should utilize, or how much equipment they need.
• The average fire person does not seem to care about the larger picture of protection within their community.
• There are those who fail to see the fire service as a multi-service discipline (This amplifies the above statement)
I have long marveled at the amount of money which was available for police departments, and that seemed to flow in an endless stream from sources that seemed almost mythical to a poor old fire service lad such as myself. It is tough to find a culprit to pin this one on. But I have noticed something recently. Even the cops are getting their butts whipped at the budget table.
In my former place of employment, the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department, hard times are at hand. On October, 2010, thirty-two officers retired from the department. Another twenty are due to leave on November 1, and another like amount on December 1. Many of these fellows would like to stay, but they are being forced to retire by changes (and potential changes) in the pension rules.
In addition to these retirements, some level of fire department layoffs is still pending. In addition, my old assignment as Battalion One has been taken out of service, along with four more engine companies. Things are not well in the old Brick City. The police are looking at the loss of 175 people, along with a raft of demotions. Is the city that much safer? Are the remaining people suddenly going to be able to do the work of two (or three)? I think not.
I guess each of us must share a bit of the blame, because we have not fought to establish grants programs with the same intensity as our colleagues in the police world. Oh, we have the FIRE Act and the SAFER program, but is that enough. We are working to address that problem in Congress, but there are a host of other places, both public and private, that we need to cultivate. However, the worm has truly turned. Police grants are way down and the level of layoffs is rising.
Let me now suggest something which many among us are thinking. I do not know about you, but I think that the federal government kicking us to the curb. I am suggesting that our FIRE Act money is being siphoned into that vast reservoir of terrorism money. Terrorism my aunt Hanna, I am sick of hearing about terrorism. Most people I know are responding to car wrecks, heart attacks, and house fires. However, I suggest that rather than crying foul, we need to refocus how we do business.
I guess what I am saying is that we have done enough crying over past tankers (not tenders) of spilled milk. If we are to take our place in the world of government affairs, we must begin to operate in a far more organized fashion. Here is where we need to demonstrate that we can operate like a business.