Ballam: Who You Gonna Call? Firefighters

It’s surprising to see that layoffs and station closures are still happening, despite encouraging words of economic recovery. But RIFs and closures are still happening and they’re just as painful as they were three or four years ago when they really started kicking in.

Recently, firefighters from Washington State to Massachusetts were protesting, discussing or accepting cuts made from on high. Remember, as I said before, recession and recovery take time to “trickle” down. Apparently, it’s not over yet, so we’ll just have to redouble our efforts and maintain the high standards of customer service our clients have come to expect.  That the more relevant we are, the less expendable we become.

Firefighters have always been the ones to figure out how absorb the cuts and do more with less.  Police have long been able to articulate their staffing needs on the grounds that crime will increase and safety will decrease.

It’s more difficult for us to do the same because people don’t see as many big fires as our fathers and father’s fathers have seen, it doesn’t mean we are any less busy. Our mission is different these days and we just need to make sure the public knows what we do.

We know our roles have changed significantly over the years. For the most part, our ancestors fought a lot more fires than most of us will ever see. Yet, we’ll have helped more cardiac patients, stroke victims and breathing difficulty patients in a week than they did in lifetimes. We’ve been on more calls for service and still alarms than ever before.

Generation after generation, the common thread is firefighters are the ones who get called in virtually every emergency. We’re the go to people for “situations.” How many of you have been to calls for water in the basement? Or to do traffic control at an accident scene where there’s really no hazard – but the one police officer dispatched to the scene can’t handle everything? We’ve all been there.

We are the mitigation team. If you need something fixed, call the fire department. Got a situation? Who are you going to call? Firefighters.

To avoid cuts and remain relevant, some fire departments have established pseudo walk-in clinic staffed by firefighters, EMTs and paramedics. They deliver some rudimentary medical care to populations in their jurisdictions in their stations. They’re doing that not only to provide services to the people who pay the bills, but to remain relevant as the role of emergency services continue to change.

Businesses that survive economic hard times learn to adapt and diversify. It’s a lesson the fire service could stand to learn.

When our dispatchers tone out calls for service, we need to be prepared for anything. I couldn’t believe my ears the other day when a neighboring department got a call for a cat “stuck” in a tree. Seriously. They responded, rendered services and cleared – I don’t know if they got the cat out, or simply told the distraught pet owner to be patient. How many of you have seen cat skeletons in trees?

Nevertheless, I am sure the caller, who we need to keep in mind is our customer, was grateful for the response, even if the firefighters did nothing, they got the big red truck out, talked to the taxpayer and at least made her feel heard and worthy.

It’s that customer service that will keep our taxpayers happy, our revenue streams at least stable, and our mission relevant.

It’s our job to willingly take on the emergency burdens of our community, resolve them and go home safely. Our customers expect us to control the uncontrollable, to resolve the impossible and fix almost anything that can go wrong in their lives.

There’s no such thing as “Ghostbusters” except in movies, but there are firefighters. And we are the ones who get the calls when there’s something weird going on in the neighborhood.

So, be ready. Our customers expect no more, but no less.