A recent attempt at merging three fire departments, including my own, into one reminded me how important people are to the whole emergency services delivery system.
I could get into a whole big discussion about merging and how not to do it. Suffice it to say, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way. Strong-arm tactics and extortion by overzealous parties aren’t the way. A far better way is from the grass roots up. Don’t come from on high saying this is going to happen and figure it out and if you don’t, there’ll be consequences. Rather, let the firefighters and first responders work together; court one another; get used to the idea; figure out the pros and resolve the cons; and then, like a marriage, figure out they are better off as partners than separate. Life is much more tranquil in those circumstances.
A forced merger is more like a shotgun wedding. One partner might be willing, the other one or more might not be, which creates a breeding ground for resentment and hard feelings and, ultimately, attrition of the very “thing” needed most, personnel.
It comes down to people and the need to value who they are and what they offer to the community and the services they provide.
Any town can erect an edifice that rivals the Taj Mahal and call it a fire station. And, they can park a fleet of million-dollar apparatus in it and fill it with the latest whizzbang gear and equipment.
But, without people, it’s pointless.
We are close to autonomous personal vehicles, but we’re a long way from self-driving apparatus and exponentially further from automated staff that can fight fire and rescue people in car crashes and the myriad of other duties of a first responder.
As I have said in the past, this publication is about trucks and stuff, so we won’t go too far down the road talking about the personnel issues involved with an ill-advised and poorly executed merger. We’ll leave that to our colleagues at Fire Engineering.
But I can’t deny the fact that my experiences highlight what I have known all along: The biggest asset to any emergency services organization is it human resources—the people, the boots on the ground providing emergency services.
It’s that appreciation of our people that compels us to seek the best of everything we can afford for our firefighters and first responders.
We want the best PPE and breathing apparatus we can get because that protects our most precious resource, the humans.
We want the best, safest, and most reliable apparatus we can get because they help keep firefighters safe and efficient.
We want stations with the latest decontamination design and technology because cancer kills responders at an alarming rate.
We want our manufacturers and vendors to design the best equipment and use the best materials because lives depend on what they create.
Firefighters and first responders have a lot of respect in most communities, and taxpayers typically support us with all they can afford, some more than others, but the point is they want us to have what we need to do our jobs. Some communities make huge sacrifices to spend a half-million on a new pumper or spend millions on a new fire station, taking on debt that will burden the taxpayers for a decade or more. Many do it willingly.
As firefighters, that means we have a responsibility to respect and honor that trust, to not be frivolous in our request. Do we really need the Firefighter’s Prayer in gold leaf on the side of our apparatus? I’ve seen it. Don’t get me wrong, it was cool to see, but I am sure it was rather expensive. Maybe we pay for it with proceeds from a chicken barbecue.
Does every firefighter need an electronic tablet? Maybe. It depends on your operations. I could go on about excesses in the fire service, and I am sure you all know what I am talking about—a neighboring department that’s got so many toys it makes you envious.
And, in some cases, it’s fine. They probably work their butts off raising money to afford the latest stuff. Maybe they don’t take salaries, and their “compensation” is having nice stuff. Just remember, there are a lot of firefighters out there who scrape by, grateful for hand-me-down turnout gear and used but serviceable vehicles. They have just as much pride, just as much drive and passion for the fire service—perhaps more, because they must work hard for every pair of boots and gloves and, sometimes, every gallon of diesel their apparatus burn.
Every firefighter, every first responder is irreplaceable in every community. Don’t lose them by driving them out with politics. Don’t lose them to preventable line-of-duty deaths because you were too cheap to get them what they needed to do the job safely.
Remember, while people are not stuff, they are worth more than anything in the fire and emergency services.