Perhaps Sometimes We Should Be Paranoid

Jan. 21, 2011

Am I imagining things or have firefighters been taking an inordinate number of hits lately in the media and from government officials? Throughout my 40-year career, there have been those who had a political or personal bone to pick with firefighters, but recently it seems to be taking on a tone that’s different and somewhat concerning. In some states, counties and cities, firefighters are being blamed for economic and political woes. Some days, I have to ask myself whether there’s someone out to get us…or am I just being paranoid?

Public employees find themselves at the epicenter of the economic whirlwind, especially as it relates to budgets, taxes and government revenue. Although service delivery models have come under scrutiny, much of the focus of the attacks has been related to wages, hours and benefits ? especially pensions. In many cases, critics have worked to uncover the most outrageous examples of excess public sector wages or pensions they could find and then represent them as the norm nationwide. In reality, there are examples of system abuse that are simply impossible to explain and should not be condoned, but the portrait our critics choose to paint of public employees compensation overall couldn’t be further from the truth.

As I said, a lot of the criticism has been directed at public employees in general, but as the media and government officials continue to try to frame the debate, the “bad example” they often use is firefighters. Following are just a few examples that I’ve come across…and there are plenty of others:

• A recent article referenced a gross salary of more than $200,000 that a firefighter had received in a single year, yet failed to note that more than half of the total wages was overtime that he was required to work due to special staffing circumstances.

• Another article says “painting firefighters as something of a pampered class – well paid with retirement packages that would be the envy of anyone in either the private or public sectors – would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Today it is becoming a widespread practice.”

• An article published just this month says that “in small and large cities alike, firefighters have gone from heroes to budget bait.”

• A management consultant stated in a recent article that he questions the efficiency and effectiveness of fire department deployment models. He says that “we find across the board (in our studies), in small and large jurisdictions, that data used to support these models is either nonexistent or totally wrong.” The management consultant went on to caution decision-makers as follows: “Don’t get caught-up in the hysteria trap of believing that if you pursue things like brownouts and budget cuts that children are going to die and senior citizens will burn up.”

This stuff is everywhere lately. It’s in newspapers, magazines, on-line publications, TV, talk radio and elsewhere. Fire service leaders in management and labor are working to address this flood of bad will, but doing so is not easy.

Our nation is going through a very difficult economic time. Cities and states have made significant cuts to budgets, including layoffs and other drastic measures. Many public pension systems are under-funded, due primarily to the near collapse of Wall Street over the past three years. This has resulted in actuarial estimates that are out of balance in many cases. Under-funded pension system ratios are simply not sustainable and must be resuscitated. We all understand the current reality, and we all have to help resolve the problems, but the responsibility for righting the government’s economic ship does not rest solely with America’s firefighters.

The fire service must work together, labor and management, to educate the public and government decision-makers at all levels. When decisions are made relating to wages, hours, working conditions, pensions, budgets, staffing and other issues, they need to be made with accurate information and an understanding of firefighter safety and service delivery requirements. Maybe something more is going on out there than meets the eye, but perhaps, I’m just being paranoid!

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