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.