The last time I wrote for this Web site I started venting about issues that rile me up. This can be because of the amount of times I hear them or because they are said without merit. I think they get to me because I remain passionate about my profession, and misinformation presented by the uneducated often takes on a life of its own and gets more credibility than it deserves. Now in most of these cases, they don’t have a direct effect on my current job, but I feel the need to defend my profession. I don’t like it when we are all painted with the same brush—unless, of course, it is complimentary!
I just read an article in a local newspaper that quoted a city manager and an elected official as saying that firefighters sit around or sleep while waiting for a fire. I have a couple bits of advice. Get out of your office or down from your ivory tower and stop by a fire station—maybe even show up on an incident. Most of the fire departments I know of are working hard to improve their service. They want to do well. Further, their run volume is increasing because of added responsibilities. While not every call is made for TV or the news, there are times when all firefighters are exposed to bad things—whether on a fire, medical call, special rescue event, or anything else. Having been in this business a long time, I know too many people personally who have suffered physically and/or mentally because of the job. They don’t deserve to be disrespected by those higher in the municipality’s rank structure.
Of course, there are always a few bad apples, but they won’t spoil the whole bunch. If these two individuals have a legitimate complaint, they should look in the mirror. They should ask if they are providing the leadership needed to improve the service. They should ask who hired the leadership of the department and who approved the hiring of the firefighters. They should ask if they have the courage and ability to get rid of the dead wood in the organization. Publicly discrediting the fire service in general by saying they don’t do much says more about how out of touch these guys are than about the fire service. I sometimes get tempted to write a letter to the editor to refute their claims but don’t because I don’t think you can ever argue with an idiot. They bring you down to their level and then beat you with experience!
Related to this, I am tired of hearing that the union is the root of all evil in the fire service. Now I have had my clashes in the past and have not always seen eye to eye. But I am reminded from time to time that management ceded much of its responsibility to the union over the years because the union was ready to exert its leadership on various issues. But on every labor contract that I have worked with, there have been two sets of signatures—one from management and one from labor. There had to be agreement. Of course, there are those who say some of the issues were won in arbitration or awarded by the courts or legislation. Again I ask: is that the union’s fault? It played by an established set of rules and did well enough to gain more pay and benefits. This is not to imply that it gets a free pass on all this. It needs to read the tea leaves and adjust as the environment changes. I am just saying that labor should not get blamed for all the woes affecting local government and fire departments without asking who else contributed.
In the past few years, some departments have unfortunately had to lay off firefighters. Others kept staffing for a couple of years because of SAFER grants and then were unable to afford the firefighters when the grants expired. I am tired of hearing from politicians and some fire chiefs that there will be no effect on service as a result of the staffing reduction. If there is no impact on service levels, then they should have never hired the people in the first place. Did they have some spare change and decide that hiring someone wouldn’t change their service levels but thought why not? Unless the people getting laid off sat around and did nothing, then whatever they were doing will be missed. Of course if they were just sitting around and not contributing, then shame on the leadership of the organization. Only if an organization can maintain staffing to meet existing standards and run volume has decreased will there be minimal impact on service. This means that an organization can still send the necessary resources and respond to all the 911 calls—not that they can send fewer people and expect the same results. I would rather they say that because of a funding reduction the organization cannot maintain the same level of service. The people have chosen to lessen the protection they have and are willing to accept the risks. Remember, if someone gets laid off and there is no effect, then that person either should not have been hired in the first place or someone wasn’t supervising that person to make sure he was contributing.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.