Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 15, 2012

Love Is Not Enough

Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on February 15, 2012

You may have noticed that I have become a bit less regular about posting in my usual Wednesday slot of late. This reflects the combined effect of having too few cogent ideas about what to say and too little spare time to reflect on expanding the list.

The shortage of time arises largely from the demands of my day job as a local fire chief. If you ask the firefighters who work for me, they would probably tell you that the lack of cogent ideas is also closely connected to the job. As they like to tell me, CHAOS stands for Chief Has Arrived On Scene.

I’d like to think I am just as capable of coming up with something insightful and useful to say as I ever was. But that may be less true than I would like to admit.

Lately, the nasty issues swirling around me in my day job have come attached to people with equally nasty attitudes. People in local government are feeling very fearful and stressed about the future of their jobs. Although I would like to reassure them that things will turn out alright, they wouldn’t believe me even if it was true. And it may not be.

The little fire district I work for grew up too quickly. Now a fully-paid, career fire and rescue service employing almost 70 people, it was a volunteer outfit composed of civic-minded citizens for much of its existence. The real change began in the 1980s and 1990s when property values started to climb and development intensified. A municipal incorporation formalized governance of a part of the district, but much of it remains unincorporated even today. As the district took on paid employees, they gradually displaced the volunteers. Union representation of these employees means constant vigilance for evidence of skimming work, which means volunteers will probably never return.

Instead, the represented employees seem most likely to either work themselves out of a job or drive their employer to insolvency. It should be clear enough without much effort or thought that the first option is not terribly likely. The alternative may be on the horizon, but efforts to delay the inevitable reckoning have worked so well so far that few people believe it is actually possible.

A careful examination of how this has come to pass is pretty informative. First, firefighters have been incredibly effective at making themselves look busy, if not useful. An ever decreasing fraction of their work involves fighting or preventing fires. Factors beyond their control or ken have seen to it that this work is less necessary now than ever. Emergency medical calls and a host of other responses have filled the void left by decreasing fire activity, and now occupy 70 to 80 percent of fire service workload. The skills required to perform many of these new roles take hundreds of hours to acquire and maintain even when they are rarely used or tested.

This has made firefighters seem indispensable, which brings me to my second observation. When I was a kid, firefighters were respected, but not really revered. There was rarely a long line of applicants competing for jobs in the fire department. The work was dirty, hard, poorly paid and involved impossibly long hours. (and this remains the case in many other countries.) That changed quickly here starting in the 1970s. Today, firefighters in my community like many others earn salaries far above the median household income. And we work for a reasonably well-off community, so that’s saying something. You don’t have to look hard for evidence of how well-paid our firefighters are. The parking lot tells quite a tale, as my wife’s unemployed city planner friends have remarked on more than one occasion.

Unlike the volunteers they replaced, few of the firefighters in my agency live in the community they protect. A few live more than 100 miles away. The 48-hour work schedule accommodates this, and few demands beyond attending calls, training and performing routine maintenance means such long shifts present few hazards. Despite their unusual work schedules, firefighters in my agency get ample time-off. Our average employee works just a little more than 42 hours per week after vacation, holidays and other time adjustments.

By making themselves available to handle almost anything anyone might think to throw at them, firefighters have managed to do what no other public servants have yet accomplished: While much of the public loathes government, citizens love firefighters and rarely think of them as government employees. In fact, many people have no idea that the people protecting them are paid, much less paid well. Many people seem genuinely surprised when they learn that the firefighters work around the clock.

How could this have escaped their attention? Easily it turns out.

This brings me to my last observation: Firefighters show up. Always.

With all due respect to my friends the police, this is not true even of other emergency services. We have become so accustomed to waiting for service and not getting what we really want when it does arrive that we are genuinely surprised and generally delighted when someone responds at all.

Because firefighters have taken it upon themselves to be indispensable, they almost always look busy. Even when they aren’t particularly effective.

Truth is, we aren’t much more effective at putting out fires than we were right after they replaced the horses with motorized fire engines. Even now, if a fire gets a good enough head-start in any building, we will always play catch-up, which means waiting for the fire to consume enough fuel and get small enough again that we can put it out with the water and personnel available. Sometimes, I think the more overmatched we are, the more overwhelmed we look, the more impressed people are with our performance.

Fires don’t much care whether we have a good attitude or a bad one. When firefighting was all we did, I knew a lot of firefighters you wouldn’t want to take out in public. With the advent of emergency medical service, we have had to emphasize the soft-side. Firefighters these days are experts at displaying empathy. As such, they endear themselves to almost everyone they encounter. In the small number of instances where this does not happen, the other party often comes across worse, so firefighters can get a free pass even when they might not deserve one.

All of this may seem pretty cynical. And it probably is. People may love firefighters, but this economy has meant giving up a lot of other things we love. If firefighters become too expensive, they too shall pass. And their lack of strong connections in the communities they serve will be what decides their fate.

This should concern homeland security professionals if only because they too have come to depend on firefighters’ willingness to take on added jobs. If not firefighters, then to whom shall we turn to protect our communities?

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6 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 15, 2012 @ 8:50 am

Well Mark another terrific post. And could you please post a map of your fire district. Sounds like a livable community. But your from the heart and head post prompts me to reflect on my efforts to see that the FIRE SERVICE pulls its own weight and thrives and achieves even more. It could probably go on as it has but perhaps my personal history with the FIRE SERVICE might be of interest to you and others. Perhaps not.

So this is going to be a long comment but broken into several pieces.

So the first part is the history somewhat abbreviated of the FIRE SERVICE and its history as part of FEMA where as you know I worked from 1979-1999. And then retired after 34 years of federal service.

The Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974 was enacted in that year. The drivers were the various FIRE SERVICE organizations including the International Association of Fire Chiefs and others. But it was really Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington State that conducted the scut work leading to enactment and then pushed it through. Its location in the Commerce Department, about to be broken up by the Obama Administration was largely recognition of “Maggie’s” Committee assignments in the SENATE.

If memory serves Howard Tipton headed the Fire Prevention and Control Administration as a political appointee in the Commerce Department. In the arrival of President James Earl Carter in Washington on January 20, 1979, his reorganization of Georgia State government orgs had some history that made government reorganization one of his possible choices. So he established various Reorganization Project Teams in OMB drawing largely on entrenced civil servants with broad experience to run each team. Nye Stevens later a GAO director, and Mike Springer headed that team for what became eventually Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978, effective April 1, 1979, which created FEMA.

I was a GS-14 General Attorney in HUD but was one of the principal lawyers for the Federal Insurance Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration. At the time the project was announced by Carter, I was the only lawyer in all of HUD somewhat interested in the outcome of the project. Little did I know then what I know now.

Perhaps oddly, the Chief Counsel operations of the US Fire Administration, the renamed organization under the 1974 statute, had the largest block of lawyers dedicated to any component that might become part of FEMA. This included a GS-15 Chief Counsel and half a dozen or more slots dedicated to the USFA. The only real rival dedicated to one of FEMA’s predecessor orgs was the DCPA [Defense Civil Preparedness Agency] which also had a dedicated General Counsel and staff to that component.

These two components and their legal staffs were transferred intact to the new FEMA when it was created. AS far as HUD was concerned no one seemed to know how much time and attention FIA and FDAA were drawing from the legal staff at HUD that numbered in excess of 400. Times sheets were provided to OMB and the REORG project team identifying at the TIME OF TRANSFER over 20 full time slots dedicated to FIA and FDAA and another 14 part time. Due to the total incompetence of the GC of DCPA, who lead the legal aspects of the REORG project a total of 8 FTE’s were transferred.
Although many then and later accused me of bureaucratic legermain I was not responsible for the almost immediate destruction of the Chief Counsel’s Office of USFA, with the former Chief Counsel becoming the Deputy Fire Administrator under its first FEMA title, which remained the USFA. Oddly I had virtually no influence on other sections of the GC ops or structure other than litigation because of the role I had at HUD and now at FEMA as the Associate GC for Litigation. I was able to capture four of the HUD slots for the litigation function. None came from the USFA delegation.

At any rate I was privy to much discussion about USFA and its incorporation into FEMA. It liked its home in the Commerce Department where it was largely left untouched by higher authority, and its protector Maggie was still in the SENATE. Former Chief Gordon Vickery who was head of USFA in Commerce became the first FEMA USFA and actually was acting Director of FEMA until Director John Macy showed up late summer 1979. So from April to September the FIRE SERVICE ran FEMA. Note for the record that post-Katrina the FIRE SERVICE has again run FEMA through Chief’s Paulison and FUGATE. Another story.

So with its legs wobbly and barely under it FEMA opens it doors in 1979 but was not physically consolidated until fall 1981 with the exception of USFA that had its own building. It also was involved in attempting to purchase a small women’s college campus in DC for the Fire Academy. This purchase went through but failed due to zoning issues and eventually the Marjorie Webster campus was transferred to Galludet College and FEMA received an appropriation credit to buy a new campus which it did at EMMITTSBURG, MD, where it still sits. The former St. Joseph’s College for Women and the Mother SEATON SHRINE which is not on the campus.

So President Ronald Regan arrives on January 20, 1981, and his first Director Louis O. Guiffrida immediately reorganizes FEMA except for USFA. His cohort Fred Villella, turned down as Deputy Director of FEMA [nomination withdrawn by REAGAN] is confirmed as the Associate Director for Training and Fire because the former Civil Defense College in Battle Creek, MI was consolidated with the National Fire Academy at the Emmittsburg location. Becoming the Nation Emergency Training Center [NETC]!

In its submission of the budget for FY 1982 USFA was rewarded by being zero budgeted although the NFA remained funded. This happened because REAGAN’s campaign manager Ed Rollins, once employed by the USFA, had a grudge and he led the efforts to zero budget USFA. This was reflected in the budget submission in February 1982.

I knew almost nothing of this background except I had noted that USFA had little in the way of standard setting or regulatory authority despite its history of dealing with fire losses. The GC of FEMA in desperation on behalf of FEMA leadership strolled into my office to tell me of the zero budget submission. I had heard rumors for some time since I acted largely as lawyer for the appropriations process of FEMA although almost none of the authorization process. GAO was about to rule in 1982 that on an official GAO basis appropriations absent authorizing language served to be a legal authorization. Some may remember the REAGAN era’s massive OMNIBUS RECONCILIATION and BUDGET ACT of 1982.

Suffice it to say that USFA was reauthorized by that massive appropriation act. And by the way I believe to this day that the GAO ruling that eliminated floor challenges to unauthorized programs, functions, and activities also destroyed the real power of the authorization committees. Just look at the present HOUSE HOMELAND SECURITY Committee as a prime example.

While the Courts continue to try and argue that Congress in enacting legislation meant to do something and was not engaged in meaningless acts I believe it often engages in meaningless acts.

That restoration did not however save USFA because in the 1984 budget submission Ed Rollins was again able to get the Administration to zero budget USFA. Beware a bureaucrat scorned and turned into a political appointee. Again the appropriators saved USFA largely led by the Congressional Fire Caucus led by Curt Weldon.

Well hopefully those reading this lengthy first chapter comment to Mark’s post may have some interest in further chapters, but I will remain silent unless demand is evidenced.

Suffice it to say that the FIRE SERVICE is a national asset not just a local asset but for many reasons current and historically does not have the leverage on policy in Washington that it is capable of welding. In fact I have long concluded that
EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT largely exists because of FIRE SERVICE inherent contradictions some pointed out by Mark.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 15, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

Mark:

Just in case…

The contemporary meaning of chaos is too often negative. The original classical Greek meaning was close to “unorganized potential.” Chaos is neither good nor bad. It depends how it is engaged, given meaning, directed, especially through the application of logos.

The presence, recognition, and embrace of chaos can be pretty fabulous. I’m sure this is precisely what your colleagues are thinking as the chief arrives on scene.

Comment by Mark Chubb

February 15, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

I’ll try to believe your interpretation, Phil.

Comment by William R. Cumming

February 16, 2012 @ 7:22 am

FRACTALS are not chaotic!

Comment by R W

February 20, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

Get help friend. You are seriouly delusional, ill informed, bitter, uneducated and probably doing a huge disservice to your firefighters, your department, and your taxpayers. The fire service can not afford to have leaders (I use the term loosely) like you at the helm. You sound like you’ve been burned at the bargaining table. More than likely, it was because you were seriously delusional, ill informed, bitter, uneducated and unprepared. Do everyone a favor and get help or get out!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

February 21, 2012 @ 8:23 am

RW: I do not know Mark well. We have never met. But I know his perspective, priorities, and professionalism through what he has written here. I know him as a thoughtful and courageous man who is ready to risk his life for his neighbors. To me that is leadership.

Most of us suffer our share of delusions, lack of information, insufficient education, and very real failures. Occasional bitterness is not uncommon. But none of this reflects the Chief Chubb I have encountered in this digital space, and I expect that is true in physical space as well.

We all need help. Sometimes more than others. Sounds like you have been there. Love may not be enough, but the way we honor one another (or not) is a foundation for everything else that truly matters. Mark has earned my respect and admiration.

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