Chiefs Discuss Challenges Facing Fire Service

Most Americans still hold firefighters in high regard, but fire officials say there’s a growing faction that considers them a financial drain on the nation's communities due to salaries, pensions and benefits that make many workers jealous.

It’s time fire departments stop that perception and let their taxpayers know all the services firefighters provide for the community, said a group of operations fire chiefs who participated in a roundtable discussion at Firehouse World in San Diego.

“People don’t have fires like they used to,” said Los Angeles City Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief John Tripp to a group of several dozen fire leaders at last week’s conference. “Therefore, there’s a perception that we don’t need as many firefighters as we used to.”

The state of the economy and staffing levels were a couple of the topics of a wide ranging conversation on current fire and emergency services issues that were led by Phoenix Fire Department Assistant Chief Todd Harms, San Francisco Assistant Chief David Franklin and Tripp.

Tripp said firefighters today are life safety code and building code inspectors. They are public educators as well as emergency medical services providers, he said.

“There is an element of readiness and preparedness we have to maintain as well,” Tripp said. “There are skill sets that we have to maintain, even if we don’t use them often. That’s what they are paying us for.”

Franklin, San Francisco’s assistant chief said, “There are a lot of guys out there willing to work as firefighters for $15 an hour,” a situation that makes it challenging to justify better pay for more experienced and better trained firefighters.

That’s why consolidations and fire department mergers are often better solutions for firefighters than taking pay and benefit cuts, Franklin said. Communities often realize cost savings by merging, while the firefighters, for the most part, retain their pay and benefit packages.

“Why does every little community need its own fire department?” Franklin asked rhetorically. “There are lots of watch dog groups out there asking the same question. We think we are fighting with our own supervisors, but often, it’s coming from outside groups.”

Tripp agreed and said, “The private sector is on a mission,” and one of the ways firefighters can protect themselves is with strong union representation.

“I am not a Jimmy Hoffa kind of guy up here, and I get my ass kicked by the union just like everybody else, but I am telling you, unions do a lot for the profession,” Tripp said.

As part of the changing role of firefighters, the chiefs talked about the fact that many more calls are for emergency medical services than fires today.

Harms said that as the fire service deals with more and more medical calls, it becomes more important for fire departments to “get a place at the table” with accountable care organizations (ACOs) and help promote the wellness side of health care.

He said Phoenix has three vans in the city, each with a social worker and a physician’s assistant that responds to non emergent calls, such as a person with a seizure who is postictal, but has a seizure history and hasn’t taken their medication.

“That person probably doesn’t need to go to the hospital,” Harms said. “They need to take their medication.” In that situation, the team in the van would give the patient a voucher for a cab ride to the local pharmacy to pick up medicine, Harms said. In other situations, the physician’s assistant can, perhaps, write prescriptions or sew some stitches on a wound, anything that doesn’t require hospitalization.

He said he’s found that hospitals in his area are willing to reimburse the city for the service because it’s far less expensive than providing emergency room care. And, because the fire department is the group that often provides hospitals with patients in the emergency room – their customers – the hospitals are more willing to work with fire departments programs like the one underway in Phoenix.

Tripp said in Los Angeles County, the fire department has gone back to the old “Johnny and Roy” approach to providing EMS coverage in his district – running Dodge trucks around the county providing rapid paramedic care, the kind found in the popular 1970s “Emergency” television show. Patient transport is done by private companies, Tripp said.

Other topics touched upon included fire station compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation and mandated funding for art in new fire station construction. Discussion on those topics suggested most people understand the need for both in public buildings, but fire officials might not like losing the funds that could be used elsewhere.

The session concluded with a brief discussion of cancer in the fire service.

Harms said there’s some personal responsibility firefighters must assume to beat the risk of acquiring the dreaded disease in the fire services.

Keeping turnout gear clean is one huge way to make a difference, Harms said, and another is to require that breathing protection be worn at all times during overhaul.

Franklin said firefighters have to break the fraternity-type behavior that makes it difficult for captains and supervisors to enforce the use of all PPE whenever it’s necessary.

“I am paid to keep you safe and when we’re working, that’s my job no matter if we go golfing or have family vacations together when we’re not working,” Franklin said.

Harms added that his department documents every exposure to potentially cancer causing agents, including smoke. That way, there’s a paper trail if a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer.

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