Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 28, 2012


Filed under: Budgets and Spending,State and Local HLS — by Mark Chubb on March 28, 2012

I once thought dedication to duty was the hallmark of public service. especially among public safety professionals. Dedication seems to have taken on a different connotation though these days.

When people speak of dedication to public safety now, it usually refers to the commitment of resources without the need for justification, evaluation or competition. Dedicated resources are preferred. Competition for resources is not. The only thing worse than having to compete for resources is having to prove the resources allocated were spent well.

Fire services, unlike police, often have the luxury of dedicated funds if only because many of them operate outside county or municipal governance under special purpose districts. Most of these districts are funded by ad valorem taxes on real property. Since the beginning of the Great Recession or Great Reset or Whatever We’re Calling It Today — which led to the collapse of home prices — these special purpose fire districts have found their revenues not only constrained but falling for the first time in decades.

Some of these districts have managed to scrape by on reserves accumulated before the crash. Others have raised incremental tax rates to make up for the shortfall. But the revenues available from such quick-fixes and meagre cost-cutting gestures are running out. Now they are looking for alternatives.

The most popular alternative to the labor unions is amalgamation of fire service agencies. Contracting out administration of a fire district is preferable it seems to contracting out firefighting or ambulance transport services because it doesn’t affect bargaining unit members.

Union advocates of mergers and consolidations tell anyone who will listen that such moves will achieve scope and scale economies for citizens who will benefit from maintenance of existing staffing levels and response times. The experience of jurisdictions that have actually gone through the merger or consolidation process tells a different story.

Most combined fire service agencies achieve little economic benefit in the short-term. In fact, they often see short-term cost increases as the affected organizations struggle with integration (sound familiar, DHS?). Just as the turbulence begins to give way, these organizations often see the increased influence of combined bargaining units and new demands on the organization make it more difficult to settle labor agreements without experiencing increased operating costs. In the end, the best most combined fire agencies can achieve is reducing the rate of growth in their expenditures, which buys them time before the need for another reorganization.

It’s overly simplistic to assume that either the economy or the unions are to blame for this situation. Clearly, both parties played their parts. Elected officials and many administrators acted out supporting roles along the way too.

Cities and counties have been struggling with these problems for a bit longer. The power of the fire department to play on emotions for its share of the budget pie has been consistently and credibly eroded. Fire incidents and deaths are down. But the costs of providing fire service keep going up. Efforts to demonstrate any credible relationship or correlation between fire service inputs and fire outcomes has proven consistently elusive. Paying more for fire service does not generate better outcomes, especially when most of the increased cost goes into pay and benefits for employees who live outside the locales they protect.

In this context, merging municipal fire departments with fire districts often does little to improve the quality of fire service for either entity even when it secures the jobs of firefighters. More often than not, cities use resources from adjacent suburban and ex urban areas to prop up service delivery in the urban core. Competition among municipal departments for scarce city revenues makes it difficult if not impossible to balance the books so both cities and adjacent ex urban areas support their own weight despite any efficiencies achieved through joint oversight.

Scholarly studies of the situation paint conflicting pictures. Two impressive exposés on the effects of fire service cutbacks in New York City in the late 1960s and 1970s do demonstrate, however, what happens when cutbacks send a clear signal to the community that its protection is no longer a priority of government. In The Fires, Joe Flood chronicles the effects of the RAND Fire Project on urban policy. Flood paints a sympathetic picture of firefighters and the victims of urban blight. Although he would have readers believe that the effects of disinvestment in fire services were bad for cities, his analysis suggests a gradual shift in focus from services to outcomes led to better building codes and more attention to land use patterns that produced many other benefits.

An earlier work by Deborah Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses, presents compelling evidence that this withdrawal of urban fire services from the South Bronx and other neighborhoods under Mayor Lindsey sparked an underclass diaspora that spread drug abuse, crime and communicable disease across the city, if not the country. Wallace’s account is grounded not in sociology or urban policy, but rather public health and epidemiology. Clearly, forcibly uprooting and transplanting an entrenched urban underclass proved misguided and disruptive for both communities — those displaced and those receiving them. But the effects of these changes on fire service are less clearcut.

If the case for not cutting fire services seems clear enough — it can produce severe unintended consequences, consider three other scholarly efforts that look more closely at the fire service itself. The first, Crucible of Fire by Bruce Hensler suggests the form and function of today’s urban fire services is more the reflection of firefighters’ influence upon their service than the imprint of the urban environment and its demands upon them. Like their brothers and sisters-in-arms, firefighters it seems are always fighting the last war. In contrast, two other efforts, Eating Smoke by Mark Tebeau, and The Fireproof Building by Sara Wermiel, suggest that most of the credit for improvements in urban fire safety should go to engineers and fire insurance underwriters, not firefighters.

Social and political activism among firefighters is not new. In fact, it could reasonably be argued that accumulating and exercising social and political influence was always one of the primary purposes of these organizations. In Cause for Alarm, Amy Greenberg, follows this thread backwards several decades and illustrates how placing fire services under municipal governance was intended to curb rampant abuses of process and power. Alas, as we see today, these efforts have ultimately proved futile.

As I write this, the International Association of Fire Fighters is holding its legislative action conference in Washington, D.C. At the opening plenary session, IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said it as clearly as anyone could. Commenting on the union’s political priorities following last year’s efforts by governors and legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana to repeal collective bargain rights for public employees, “If you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” He equated the effort to defend public employees from attack by politicians to a fight for the very survival of the middle-class. A parade of speakers, including politicians, political activists and union leaders followed to reinforce the message: Firefighters must be active politically to prevent further erosion of pay and benefits.

If this is the litmus test for fire service political support, then I can see why we have a problem. Looking at the problem critically and considering the evidence for and against continued investments in fire service based upon past precedents is not an option. Firefighters will tell you they already know the right answer, they don’t need more evidence much less debate. (See a recent blog post by former deputy fire chief, lawyer and physician’s assistant John K. Murphy for example.)

These days, it seems, firefighters are dedicated to putting whatever effort is required into protecting their jobs, pay and benefits. We can only hope citizens and elected officials are equally dedicated to constructively shaping public priorities to reflect their interests in efficiency and accountability.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by William R. Cumming

March 28, 2012 @ 12:42 am

Another great great post from Mark. I would argue from a slightly different standpoint. What is the fire hazard today? In urban settings the so-called Hughes Panel report in the late 60’s identified the withdrawal of property insurance as a major factor in the deterioration of the central cities of the USA. So called red-lining that led to restrictions on issuance of mortgages also. So call FAIR plans that still exist, in California they once existed for wildland/urban fire
districts also. These were authorized by the Urban Property Protection Act of 1968, as amended, administered in part by FEMA and then incentivized by retroactive reinsurance against riots and civil disorders. Some have predicted long hot summers for the USA this summer. Various reasons given. Drought might be one. Residential values have declined by over one/third in the last decade. That “wealth” has been largely transferred from the homeowner to the rest of the “FIRE Sector” FIRE being finance, Insurance, Real estate sector. Perhaps that wealth exists but transferred elsewhere perhaps not. I am not an economist. But the largely unregulated insurance sector [few state insurance departments even have a full fledged actuary] means that little research is being done in the property/casualty sector. And we do know of the confusion and turmoil in the health insurance sector. Life insurance has become the least controversial sector of the insurance business but still is fraught with post-claim underwriting and other problems.

One subsidy to the FIRE SERVICE is the federal public safety officer payments for those killed in the line of duty. Once administered by FEMA it now is the province of the Department of Justice.

Comment by Fire Budgets To Stay Intact

March 29, 2012 @ 7:58 am

In a one-man protest, 1,491 hours and three very cold and snowy winters from 1992-1995, as a citizen, now twenty years later and a swollen, arthritic right hand from the cold, sleet, snow hitting my rtight hand as I held my – Open Engine 4 Sign – high in the sky morning into the darkness and sometimes below zero weather – pls see: http://www.bigdiglifevest.com – in the same commitment that professional poloce, fire or EMT responses expedeintly to a 911 call in desperation, I stood forthright with a brotherhood of men and women who serve us daily 24×7 to protect us, not the politician who sle[pt while I stood in the cold anticipating the next 911 call of fellow neighbor and realizing that the response was locked up behind the green doors which I nudged against daily and nightly to keep the cold wind from biting so…

The real truth I learend after standing on top of snow piles and jeopardizing myself and career giving all up and today two decades later having lost not only three years of income, but three years towards my social security contribution, three years of the best income years and let me say, never have I looked back nor will I and regret any moment for I witnessed arrogance, indifference, apathetic folks who knew well that a human Life of citizen or in fact First Responder was in jeopardy for the intentional and political closing of a “charade” as portrayed then by government and from what I see today, an ever and fra more reaching government dictating to the public without scruting – yes without transparency. Budgets out of whack and the whacky we “entrust” be precious vote who have not a care in the world how they spend tax monies especially at the local level placing our beloved First responders – police officers, firefighters and EMT’s, understaffed and often lackoing in sufficient budget….

Fire servive and public safety is often the threat the local pols use to hoodwink tehe public to support other services the pols want by attaching public safety isssues along.

I am tired of this charade. My right hand swollen in pride for I realized standing w/frosen hands and feet and red face exposed to the elements, sleet and hail pellets popping off my face that in fact, when a fire station or police budgets are threatened, I no longer need to stand in protest, I simply call for a – comprehensive fraud audit – of the local community’s line by line budget expenditures and suggest startibg such – fraud audit – with the local schools….

Whether a fellow citizen stands with me in protest or not as most are so dysfunctional and busy buzzing around town with their errands, the fact of the matter is that while considerably older, I am prepared to stand in front of any fire station or shoulder to shoulder with any police officer of EMT for theur commitment to safeguarding us from those who know budgets are not being scrutinized and line by line audits and transparency is lacking so the next time you here the local pols looking at the public safety budget, it is time for you to rally your neighbors and begin to look at the department expenditures of the local departments and if necessary, hire a forensics account/CPA and sit he or she at the Seelectman’s teable with you all and say simply, “Surely we can call Christopher Tingus (www.bigdiglifevest.com) and he will stand tall with those who serve the community nationwide whether in the larger metropolitan areas or small and rural communities, however let’s begin a line by line – fraud audit – of the books”!!

So much money is wasted by every department. The politicians have padded the books and made sure that their salaries and perks often to be paid for a lifetime are all intact.

Cut the salaries if necessary. Wortk together as a community for your self-indulgence and lack of consideration for the safety and well being of others and the community by enabling politicians from the local level to this Chicago street organizer, Barry Obama, who has intentionally spent and spent and in three years exponentially increased our nation’s debt to the extent I call Congreesional hearings for this deceitful fella holding him for treason – yes, treason for he has intentionally attacked the US Constitution making very attempt to erase “America the Beautiful” for he and Rev Wright feel that the “Brutes of Tehran” should have nuclear weapons….

Listen for the siren. Yes, maybe it is not enroute to your house and family this time, but one never knows…Life can hang in jeopardy at any moment. Listen again now..think about the fact that if this eroding economy, these ill spent budgetray considerations and spiralling budhget expenditures continue from both side sof the Congressional aidle of inept, self-serving bureaucrats continues then you might hear no siren and in fact, it may be you wondering who will help you. The reply, few will come to your attention, if anyone, and you can bet that Barry Obama or the local Selectperson will not show up…

I am sick and tired of hearing – public safety – used as a pawn much like the godo people of Palestine who are at the mercy of a corrupt Arab League and kept down generation after generation to keep this devisive mentality and hatred toward fellow Hebrew brethren who do in fact have a special covenant to the Lord and depite all the planning and efforts whether it be hamas or the “KGB Putinites” who have seemingly befriended Barry Obama as well…well We as a nation, We as a People, We as the most charitable People, We must stand forthright and say, “Enough is enough”!!

Public safety budgets must not be torn apart and another fellow citizen anywhere on “Main Street USA” intimidated or jeopardized.

Let’s start seriously looking at local and state budgets. Let’s really take a look at the State Legislature and how these politician’s and their favorite School Supers spend monies so quickly and without care. I am very serious. I am also available to not only stand in the snow por any police officer, any firefighter and/or EMT, but as importantly, prepared to stand and with media outlets in hand and a line by line budget, scrutinze the ill spent monies which have threatened even the basic response in many areas. I am more than serious. If one believes standing amidst the wolves in our political arena while facing Mother Nature’s wrath as she beats your face with ice pellets is easy, think again, however as I write this reply with some difficulty as my right hand swollen from twenty years ago – 1992-1995, well, I was appaled by the local polls acknowledging in public that in fact a Life may be lost and ordered a closing and compromise in local response to 911 and when asked about the budget…well, much like when Hank Paulsen et al and Barry Obama’s “Goldman Sachs” riddled administrators were asked about where the first $750 billion in surplus funds disappeared to…

Wake up and begin to look at your local budget expenditures. So much waste…so much spending and so many perks, sometimes lifetime! Public servive jobs better paid and w/better overall perks than the private sector by folks who say they are devoted to serving the poublic when in fact, they are most often budies and part of the good ‘ol fellas and salaries and benefits have eroded the community in so many ways…

Do Not allow our real public servants, police officers, firefighters and EMT’s who we will need far much more as this economy worsens and the dollar declines by year’s end…demand term limits, limited perks and benefits reasonable in their structure and initiate recall initiatives…

The next time neighbor, family member or even you call 911, you may not hear the siren and you may be at Home Alone!

Christopher Tingus

PO Box 1612
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645 USA

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>