Hogs To The Trough

I have heard a constant refrain for a few years, as you have probably heard too.  With the economy the way it is, the constant drum beat sounds from those who want to radically downsize government, and there is a certain irrational cry from those who resent firefighter pensions and salaries.

A while back, Captain Schmoe over at Report on Conditions spelled it out best (but for some reason I can’t find the specific post), illustrating that our collective hubris has signed our own death warrant. When Fred Taxpayer sees one of the brothers trucking down the road in his Gasguzzler 6000 pickup, towing a boat with three engines on it, laughing because he only works one day out of three, it doesn’t sit well. Especially when that same individual is scraping to make ends meet, can’t figure out where he’s going to get the money to feed the kids, and might not even have a retirement anymore. Do you really find their resentment unfounded?

Recent firefighter layoffs in Camden and Gary, while extraordinarily tragic, illustrate a fundamental issue: people generally aren’t lashing out at the politicians, they are blaming the Union. And while that may very well be unfounded, it is happening, and that is a tangible reality. Why should we care? Because we did it to ourselves.

It’s not a matter that we do or don’t deserve decent salaries and good benefits, it is a matter of our failure to educate the public, to work with them and include them as part of the solution. After all, it was their own elected officials that agreed to these contracts in the first place. They can argue that they did so at the point of a gun, but the reality there is actually that these benefits were often hard-fought for and given grudgingly, so whatever these individuals were able to obtain, it wasn’t exactly handed to them on a silver platter.

Furthermore, like those of us in departments that don’t enjoy the fruits of collective bargaining, we are all lumped in together with the stories like the one illustrated above as a prime example of why we don’t deserve this compensation. I, for one, live in a nice home.  But its a home my wife and I ate a lot of waffles and PBJs to save for.  We have three children to put through college, but so do a lot of people. I drive an eleven year old truck with 130,000 miles on it.  In no way should this be construed as complaining.  I don’t make a fortune, but I think it is a fair salary for what the community gets from me, and although I wish I made more, I also understand the realities of the situation. And I have friends that are firefighters who have the truck and boat and etc., but they have in one case invested wisely, in another case happened to parlay their talents into a lucrative side job. Yet another one though, has squandered his money and overextended himself. So it is, just as it is everywhere else, the same.

When we engage in bragging about how good we have it, we’d better consider the consequences. There is a backlash that still rages on against our existence, and it doesn’t stop at the career folks either. If the public percieves that your service doesn’t have value, they will cut it back to where they feel it deserves to be funded, plain and simple. The other parts of public service enjoy a certain paranoia about the public, where those emotions about losing those services are much more tangible. Lose the trash pickup? No cops? Sewer backing up?  They will choose and what they will choose is to fund that which they are the most concerned about losing.  Since you don’t have fires next door every day, nor does everyone in the neighborhood end up in the back of the ambo regularly, do you believe that when we’re lining up to get our share, that there’s a reluctance to cut our budgets? Not often.  The public may complain a little when they see on the news that the Mayor shut down the fire station on the corner, but that sentiment is usually over by the time American Idol comes on.

We can’t continue to take for granted that the public knows why we are there or what we do, or what would happen if we lost manpower, equipment, or other tools. This is the time to insure that the buyer is aware of what they are being sold, and is happy with the return they continue to make on their investment. Yes, that’s called marketing and while that might be a dirty word to some of you, it too is a reality. You can choose to ignore the need or you can get up and do what is needed.  We can’t wait until stations are being closed and people are being laid off to insure the message is shared. Anything after that is sour grapes. We can’t scream “people will die” if we didn’t do anything to reinforce it in the minds of the population ahead of that moment.

To the general population, our indifference to their situation while flaunting our current compensation packages is a lot like Marie Antoinette telling starving Parisians, “Let them eat cake”. And you know how that story ended. The backlash against government spending isn’t going away and if we don’t evolve, don’t be surprised to hear this story repeated over and over again until we do. Would you rather change under your own terms or change at the end of a pike? It’s your call.


  • Chris says:

    Great points. As someone who did go into argue with Village Officials who moved to lay-off Firefighters, I can say the overwhelming attitude of the politicians is “No one else cares.” While I would never begrudge a brother or sister driving any vehicle they want or living in the worlds largest house if they can, we must do a better job of showing the communities we serve that we provide an essential service. That takes educating the public in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, but it also means showing them that we are there FOR THEM. Well done. Cheers

  • Bill Carey says:

    “We can’t scream “people will die” if we didn’t do anything to reinforce it in the minds of the population ahead of that moment.”

    So very true, that the fire service is reactive instead of proactive in sharing its mission. How many neighborhood canvassing plans do we see before the fatal fire? How many speaking engagements, press conferences and full-page ads are done before the mayor cuts staffing or closes firehouses?

    Bill Carey

  • Bill Carey says:

    We (fire service) also need to drop the idea of being able to live on reputation alone. ‘Being’ the fire department, in 2011, is just like ‘being’ the department of public works. We need to sell ourselves.

    Bill Carey

  • truck6alpha says:

    The sad part is that we have to do marketing at all. It used to be done for us; everyone knew what the firefighters did in our community, we all knew a firefighter (because they were our neighbor), we all shared in the collective agony of a family being displaced after a fire or a business being lost. It was shared pain when there was a loss.

    These days with so many scheduling conflicts, the internet, etc. there are means to escape that tragedy, to keep it at arm’s length. We don’t FEEL the loss like we did before and as a community, we are indifferent to whether or not we need that service provided.

    But there are a lot of people who don’t realize all the things we do on top of fighting fires. And while I empathize with those who are going though these challenges right now, and I am certainly not pointing fingers, I think it is something that instead of pointing fingers, when a failure like this happens, we have to ask why.

    Have we on the whole done a good job of marketing emergency services? I would suggest not, or we wouldn’t be asking the question right now. Thanks to you all for the comments.

  • michael says:

    We can be our own worst enemies, or best friends, It is up to us. We are our greatest fans, and not enough of us realize that. The general public doesn’t give a hoot about the tradition, honor, and all of the things we hold on to, they want value, not just from the fire service, but every aspect of their lives. We are not the only ones feeling the pince.

    Great post.

  • Lonnie Mullen says:

    This article goes back to a post I had made recently in response to an IAFC discussion. My comments in this discussion are reflected as in this article, that the fire service is a business, that has a product, Emergency Response. Lets face it, most never have a need to use our services. If we are to survive these economic times we must look for value added services that both the governing bodies (cities, counties) find cost saving and the public finds value. I even went as far in my discussions as to fire departments hiring marketing firms to do surveys of their customer base to determine public opinion and services their constituants find of value.

  • CBEMT says:

    Nobody liked my response to the Boston firefighter photographed washing his boat inside an empty bay in his fire station, but this is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about.

  • Cap says:

    And this is where I say that public exposure is our number one resource. For those career departments that aren’t doing regular public educations programs or fire inspections, they’re really missing the boat (pardon the pun). The more we are on the street, in the public eye, and not harboring ourselves in the station, the more our presence is known. That is analogous with the police department who *typically* maintains a high public profile.

    Being a firefighter in the “traditional northeast”, I think our area is slow to catch on to some of these concepts. We became steeped in tradition and set in our ways, but as we all know, times have clearly changed.

    It is a shame that in many ways we have to ‘justify our existence’, but I don’t see that going away anytime soon. The public wants more bang for their buck and doing things such as integrating fire and EMS is a way to accomplish that. Fire inspections is a way to accomplish that. Public education programs are a way to accomplish that. These are unprecedented times and we must adapt or die…

  • chiefreason says:

    And don’t forget that there was a time when firefighters actually LIVED in the communities that they serve. Now, they fight the residency requirements, go there to do their “job” and then drive their fifteen miles to home. They know very few of who they serve and the public knows very little about them.
    If Joe Public isn’t hearing truck sirens on a regular basis, they assume that the firefighters are sitting at the station playing cards or watching TV. Over the years, WE know that isn’t true, but the public was never told.
    And we continue to give them reasons to think irrationally.
    The IAFF is coming out with all kinds of PR blitzes. Apparently, they think that they are the only public servants and are taking the cutbacks and pension reforms very personally. WHat they fail to understand is that the public is tired of paying for ALL public sector employee wages and benefits. Old strategies don’t work anymore. We cannot rely on the historic high pedestal that we once stood on.
    We need to get real.

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