Your Altruism Is Hereby Noted

I was reading the never-ending stream of discussion on Dave Statter's site about the AZ fire department refusing respond to a structure fire three miles away from their station because the home was in an area that was not paying for fire service.  And we have had this discussion many times before, here on Firehouse Zen, a la South Fulton County and others.  And I am constantly surprised at the discussions that go on regarding the "pay to spray" concept, since, by now, I would have thought most communities in our nation would have gotten a clue and done something about it, one way or another, or would stop acting so surprised when it happens again.  And it keeps happening again. And again.

When I was a very young firefighter, I remember this very same kind of event occurring with a subscription fire department.  I also remember being outraged that something Ike this could occur. Really, we are altruists, we firefighters, and we do this stuff not for the pay but for the love of our fellow man.  Right?  But, some thirty years later and more jaded and cynical, I wade into this conversation with a dose of reality for you.  While it is great that we are all so willing to serve and to lay down our lives for others, there comes a serious discussion that is higher on the food chain than we happen to be.  This discussion lies at the feet of those who make these policy decisions, at the jurisdictional level, and with those who claim the fire service is gutting their wallet for all they can get, then act stupid when we tell them all this stuff costs money.

This situation is heartbreaking and I can certainly empathize with the homeowner, my own family having lost everything we had to fire when I was young.  But I also know from the perspective of a community activist: if a necessary service or facility is needed in my neighborhood, I work to fix it, or build it, or develop it.  I don't sit around and wait for someone else to do it.  If I were in a situation like this, I'd work with my local fire department to get them funding.  I would help with fund raising.  I would be a total pain in the ass to my elected officials and agitate to resolve the problem.  But I wouldn't just stick my head in the sand and hope nothing happened.

Please don't take my tone as being disparaging to those of you who feel the urge to help regardless of whether the person pays or not.  I certainly believe in selfless service to my neighbor.  I am happy to be there in their time of need and regardless of their ability to pay.  But I have a question for those of you who are getting emotional: "How many times does it have to happen before the elected officials in these communities get a clue and ensure that sustained funding is provided for fire protection?"

I feel stupid just repeating it, because the subject has been covered SO MANY TIMES; these trucks cost money.  The fuel to send them costs money.  The equipment on them costs money.  The insurance costs money.  The protective gear we wear costs money.  The station we respond out of costs money.  It's not even an issue of paying salaries and benefits; just the most elemental of operations at least requires the means to put out the fire and that requires funding. Do the citizens in these neighborhoods just assume the fire department will pay for these needs and they can get by without paying for the service?

You take a gamble when you decide to go uninsured, or in this case, live in a community who won't pay the bills.  While I agree that there are likely some contributing factors, it is as simple as this: If I lived in a community and there wasn't police protection, I'd find out why.  If the community leaders refused to help, I would do something about it.  Or perhaps (which will make the pro-gun advocates jump with joy) I would arm to protect myself.  But I wouldn't keep quiet and accept that I would be without help in the event I needed it.  

The real tragedy is that over the history of our nation, when "real" leaders realized fire protection was substandard, or too far away, or wouldn't be available to them, they organized their own fire protection.  In this day and age, one could even add sprinklers to one's home, you could be fire safe and maintain your home and property correctly, and if you absolutely had to, you could even provide your own fire apparatus (people still do this).  But even if one can't afford to pay a subscription, there should be some alternative solutions, like a community grant to pay for those who haven't the means, or maybe even some work equity to pay the subscription off.

This leads into discussion on the situation in these communities in regard to "service".  Volunteerism is a highly commendable and altruistic calling, not just in the fire service, but in many community services who lack the resources afforded to other projects.  I volunteer as an advocate for those with Down syndrome; I volunteer to help the homeless and hungry; I served for years with a camp for children who have vision challenges; and I support a whole range of other causes.  I would never withhold assistance to someone who needed help.  In fact, that is why we are there, to help.  But if the people who need the help can't fund the service, it is incumbent upon us, as leaders of these projects, to find out where to get those funds.  I may seek corporate funding, or community funding, or tax funding, or pay for things out of my pocket.  But the money has to come from somewhere, and if we were in the situation of helping someone who could afford help, I would certainly expect them to have some equity in the solution.

"Pay For Spray" is a pretty derogatory descriptor of the situation.  I would bet that the firefighters in these communities are challenged between doing what is right to help their neighbors and the elected officials who chose to abandon their responsibility for ensuring public safety needs are adequate.  This is not an enviable position to be in. But frankly, those of you who are so aggrieved by this situation should really consider moving to these areas and offering your services free of charge, putting diesel in using your credit card, and paying the light bill, because it sounds like they would love to have you pay for it all out of your pocket.

Instead of bashing the department's chief for having to make a tough decision, perhaps we should focus the blame squarely on those  who created the problem: The taxpayers and politicians who knew they had coverage issues and elected to abandon their neighbors out of convenience.  If you have a subscription service, as I said before, you'd better have an alternative plan in the event someone doesn't pay and you have to go into action.  And if the answer from the town fathers is, "Too bad", that should be widely known in the community, in the media, and everyone involved, and there should be no shock when it actually occurs, because trust me, it will.

 

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Michael "Mick" Mayers

Battalion Chief with Hilton Head Island (SC) Fire and Rescue and an Emergency Response Coordinator with the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System Incident Response Coordination Team.

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