Empty Fire Stations and Other 21st Century Dilemmas

It is with a great deal of interest that I read about the plans by fire departments across the country to close stations, create part-time fire stations and lay off people. I guess we are once again at that stage of government operations where the health and safety of the public is no longer of any concern. The hue and cry for fiscal reform always tends to drown out the reason needed to properly address these issues. 
 
The sides to this battle are not often in a mood to compromise on any plan that might seem to make them weak in the eyes of their constituents. More than that, forces are at work in our nation which seeks to further divide us all into warring factions. It has long been my personal view that compromise is the essence of success in any type of confrontation. Unfortunately, we are now seeing people who seek the middle ground being kicked to the curb by the hardliners on both sides of the political spectrum. 
 
How can we ever hope to achieve any sort of reform or progress if all parties to the governmental equations are holed up within the walls of their partisan, hard-line forts? When we should be coming together to build bridges, we are confronted with the reality of people whose sole function within the political world seems to be running from place to place and pouring gasoline on any bridge which seems to have even the slightest hope of crossing the chasms which divide us. 
 
My friends, I live in New Jersey. As a resident of the most highly-taxed state in the union, I believe I have a bit of seniority in the game of the municipal crap-shoot. For many years, I served in a fire department where rotational station shutdowns were the name of the game. Each time a working shift would come on duty we were all subject to the roll of the fiscal dice being tossed by the politicians. On many occasions, we were lucky enough to hit a seven when the dice stopped rolling.
 
I can recall fires which occurred when the first-due companies were in service. As it turned out lives and property were saved in those occasions because the right people and equipment were on duty in the right places. However, there were also a number of times when people were left hanging out of the windows because the first-due truck company was out of service. It is my strong belief that this is no way to run an airline.
 
Let me give credit where credit is due. After the 2006 election in Newark, New Jersey, the Mayor appointed Dave Giordano to the position of fire director. He had the full support of the mayor. One of the tasks he accomplished during the first year of his service was to permanently shut down a number of companies and redistribute the personnel. No longer were the citizens subjected to the risk created by the luck of the draw. No one likes to see a smaller agency, but these things happen. However, it is important to create as solid an operational model as possible.  
 
Some fire departments have taken a new tack on this issue. Rather than shutting stations or conducting blackouts, or rotating shutdowns, they are using technology to toss the dice. I read a news story the other day about a fire department which is using an expensive computer system to shoot the dice on their behalf. They have gone so far as to create what they are calling a part-time station. I have to give them credit, I had never even thought of creating a fire station which is only staffed when the computer says it should be covered. 
 
Rather than simply creating a solid, predictable roll of the dice, this computer program will seek to outguess fires and medical emergencies. As a younger man, I spent a great deal of time at our volunteer ambulance station shooting darts. At least my friends and I had the benefit of tossing the steel-tipped missiles at a stationary target. This new program will attempt to shoot darts at a target which is moving at all times. Am I missing something here?
 
Right now, I am in the midst of reading a tremendous book entitled "The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City – And Determined the Future of Cities." Joe Flood has developed an excellent commentary of one of the critical times in urban fire history. Truth be told, I was curious as to what Mr. he had to say. I must admit that as one who has worked in the forefront efforts to professionalize our service, his title piqued my interest. Data gathering and analysis is good, isn’t it?
 
More than that, a number of my associates and I worked on such a project in Newark back in the 1980's. Of course in those days, there were no real notebook and PC units as we know now. Our research team had to gather the data which was slowly and meticulously entered into the city's main-frame computer by the creation of data cards which were punched and then entered in the city system.
 
Talk about a boring job. It was my task to visit every four-block square fragment of the City of Newark and check the occupancy types and population indicators. Other folks on the team used the old city commissioners maps to create new maps upon which could be entered the intersection nodes which the computer could then use as the defining points for the eventual times trials which were conducted once we had reduced the whole city to a single, extremely complex interaction of key-punched data. 
 
When the time came to check our simulated run times against the available vacant properties which might be available for new stations within the city, our team was broken up and returned to our original fire station assignments. A great deal of work went for nothing as the powers that be opted to maintain the status quo. A great deal of money was spent for no positive gain.
 
What I have learned from Mr. Flood's excellent work is that a great many folks, with the best of intentions, depended heavily on computer output to call the shots for their organization.   One of the interesting findings put forth by Mr. Flood is that the decisions to close fire stations, based upon computer projections, led to fire stations being closed in the areas of the city where the most fires were breaking out.
 
He pointed to one census tract in the Bronx where greater than 90 percent of the structures in that area where destroyed by fire. More and more fires led to less and less buildings in an area. A lesser amount of buildings had the effect of driving people from an area. Sad to say, this makes all the sense in the world.
 
I greatly appreciate that these are challenging times for the people working overtime to provide fire protection to our nation's cities, towns, townships, and villages. What I also must sadly appreciate is that the general public really doesn’t give a hoot in Hell for what you and I do.
 
As one who has spoken to members of the public about our fire district budget here in Howell Township, I want you to know that I share your pain. One afternoon I spent a number of hours speaking to people about our fire district's approach to financial stability. My numbers were great. We cut more than $350,000 out of our operating budget. We cut the tax rate by half a point and we lowered our budget total back to the level of our 2007 budget. 
 
It was my privilege to inform them of how we had carefully handled our finances under state law so that we could pay cash for our new pumper which is due in at the end of 2010. I then pointed out that we had only taken a ten-year bond to build our new fire station and that we had already paid off six of the ten years.
 
At the end of this whole litany of fiscal responsibility, can you imagine what their response was? Why did you pay cash? Why didn't you cut our tax rate and return the money to us? Why didn't you borrow the money?   As you might imagine, I was quite upset by that point.
 
Let me suggest that I closed this unrewarding conversation by answering their question with a simple, logical, common-sense statement. My friend, I said, we prefer to make interest rather than to pay interest. We think that is a better way for the folks who were elected to take good care of citizen's money and their community to proceed. Thankfully, enough of the thinking people in our district came out to give our budget a passing vote. 
 
If a fire department is going to close fire stations, layoff personnel, and shift equipment to more distant locations, I believe it is incumbent upon the people running the department to be as honest as possible. Let me offer an example of how this can be done. People, equipment, and apparatus are finite elements of a department's operating plan. If you have x-number of people, and y-number of fire trucks, you can only get a level of results where x + y = the total capacity of the firefighting system.
 
Lawrence, Massachusetts has closed three fire stations and laid-off an additional 24 personnel. Their Acting Fire Chief, Brian Murphy, has expressed a great concern for what might happen in his older, tightly constructed, old mill community. He noted that response times had risen from a normal three-minute period to upwards of six to seven minutes. However, he has been most candid indeed. There was no hiding or sliding for this man. He has stated his position and intends to stick by it. In a recent article on the Eagle-Tribune.com web site he stated that, "The key is to have an adequate number of firefighters on the scene in a short period of time …"
 
He has stated at recent public meetings that Lawrence risks a major disaster because of last week's layoffs of 23 firefighters and the firehouse closures. He went on to state that, "…We're losing precious minutes in getting to the fire scenes. One of the reasons why firehouses were strategically located throughout the city was to cut down on the time to get to the fire. Seconds actually make a difference between life and death."
 
Let the record show that he did not rant or rave. Rather, he put forward his argument in a straightforward and logical manner. It was not a threat of any kind, it was simply a statement of what he believes the facts to be. He indicated that there are many instances were medic runs are unable to be answered because fire apparatus is tied up on a variety of calls. I guess you really can cut a pie into just so many pieces.
 
Let me close this visit with you by stating quite simply that there is little that we can do in the face of the current rage to cut money. People only have so much money and they really do not want to spend it on fire protection. There is really a good reason for this. How often have you heard the old story about how fire emergencies only happen to the other guy? 
 
Maybe the reason I am so concerned is that I have been the other guy. Twice since I have retired from the Newark Fire Department, my associates from the Adelphia Fire Company have been called to my house to handle fire-related emergencies. Can you see why I might be glad that our fire department is well-trained, well-equipped, properly staffed, and close by? I am not being selfish, I am just being practical. 
 
Perhaps I should not be so hard on the folks who are trying to create new ways of doing business in order to stretch their working capital to the fullest extent possible. Just do not try to BS the public into thinking that they will get the same level of fire protection from a 15-member fire department that they once received from a 35-member agency. At the very least we owe our taxpayers honesty. 
 
Let me close this visit with you by stating quite simply that I must hand it to the chief who was honchoing the computer program to create the part-time fire station program and cover for the closure of two other stations. His candor was both refreshing and somewhat of an understatement. He said that, "…residents … might have slower service." Do you think? 
 

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