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...


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.