Inside a Budget Fight: Casualties

By Scott Joerger

In this series, Scott Joerger discusses his and other firefighters’ opinions about and response to the attempt to shut down his engine company.

I hope that most firefighters never have to know what it is like to work at a firehouse or company that is proposed to be cut in an upcoming budget reduction. I hope that a fire chief never has to make a choice to close a company, reduce staffing, or eliminate a service.  I hope that a captain never has a budget fight to keep a company open or sink with the ship.  Unfortunately, these things happen, and it really drives morale down. Ask a firefighter from a company about a recent positive impact that he or his company made to the neighborhood they serve and protect. If they can answer quickly with an incident where they stopped something from going really bad, and this answer would leave most of those listening with a feeling of awe, then this is a firefighter, and a company, that is vital to the neighborhood and should never be reduced or cut!

 Every officer and firefighter in the company where I proudly serve as captain could answer the question that way. However, most would not answer the question. They just do the job so often that they take it for granted, or they do not boast about their amazing acts of service. I know what they do, and so does the neighborhood we serve.  This is a disadvantaged neighborhood with customers who need help and use our service a lot because of their socioeconomic conditions.  They know how to call for help—dial 911—but they are not likely informed about the cuts and do not understand that they need to ask for the level of service and protection they require. It has been very difficult trying to obtain and maintain their support to avoid our proposed cut—and closing of the firehouse—in an upcoming budget. When this proposed cut was announced, my company banded together and decided to fight it. So far, we were losing this fight by not maintaining much needed support from the neighborhood.  And with a fight, there are always casualties. This fight produced two.

The reason for both of these casualties was morale. Morale around the firehouse was extremely low. Emergencies were always handled professionally, but all the nonemergency stuff faltered. I would hear phases like, “Why try to complete inspections, housework, or training when they are just going to close us in a few weeks anyway?” or “They don’t care about this place, so why should we.” Even my morale was low, and I could not hide it from the firefighters.  However, as captain, there was still work that had to be done. I would tell officers and firefighters that it was more important now to complete work because we did not want to be seen on the radar any more than we already were.  I might have relaxed on housework a bit but maintained expectations for inspections, equipment checks, and training saying, “Equipment checks, training, and inspections are not for the administration, but for you so that you can be a better, safer firefighter.”  This seemed to work because when you work with professional firefighters they always maintain the profession.

There was one young firefighter assigned to the company who was the most affected by the proposed cuts. He would be Casualty #1 and was a great young firefighter who worked hard and did everything he could to help at a fire or an emergency and around the firehouse. He stood the chance of losing his company and his job. He was low in seniority and would be laid off.  Because of this threat and low morale, he worked very hard with our fight and also worked with the union in the previous mayoral election in which the union supported the losing candidate. He had also gone to the neighborhood meeting where the mayor asked customers of the neighborhood to come up with budget deficit solutions; in my opinion, he worked too closely with our neighbors to arrive at solutions presented to the mayor. Looking back on it now, I should have advised him not to be so visible. He is young and didn’t know better. He was just trying to do what he thought was the right thing to save his job and this company. He was transferred and reassigned to a slower company and a different work shift.  The administration said the reason was for the betterment of the department by realigning personnel among work shifts. Strangely, out of about 400 firefighters working these shifts, he was the only one transferred or reassigned. I am not completely sure why this transfer occurred, but I do feel that realignment of personnel among work shifts is not the only reason. I feel responsible for this casualty by not giving him better advice. I also feel that the local union should better prepare firefighters and officers about what to expect and what you should and should not do when you take part in a budget fight. I hope this transfer is temporary, because he has a long career still ahead of him and he is a person who could be in a leadership role.  However, this will never happen if he, and the administration, doesn’t realize his potential. 

Casualty #2 occurred shortly after this. The stress level around the firehouse was really high.  We work in a stress-filled job to begin with, where normal lifestyles, normal meals, and normal sleep patterns are not maintained. Add poor morale and stress from the proposed budget cut stuff that was all around, and another casualty was really just a matter of time.

We work a three-days-on, three-days-off, three-nights-on and three-nights-off shift rotation.  On our first night on, we ran several EMS calls so that by the time I was relieved the next morning there was no real sleep that night.  Usually, many firefighters leave work when relieved to rush home to the kids so their wife can go to work or to rush off to a side job to supplement income. Casualty #2 worked a side job during the day. Since we were not terribly busy on our second night, he should have rested to catch up, but he was someone who regularly puttered around doing things. The kitchen floor was a mess and needed to be scrubbed with the floor machine. This was a job the day crew does during the day, but he decided at 8 o’clock at night to do it. He and another firefighter spent about an hour and a half on this job. I was really proud of both of them. They did not have to do this, but they did it because they took pride in the firehouse. We had just one “bunker” that night after midnight, and I didn’t see him the next morning as I rushed home. Funny how I never would have expected that to be the last time we would ever work together. He had a heart attack that afternoon at his side job and coded en route to the hospital. He was revived by a skilled paramedic, but he coded again at the hospital.  Probably because he was relatively young and strong, he was again revived, but then he remained in a coma and on life support for the next nine days.

Things with the firehouse could not have been worse. The budget cut seemed likely because we just were not getting the support needed from the community. Morale was down, and two of the finest firefighters from the company were gone.

Casualty #2 regained consciousness after nine days of life support without any brain injury. It was unbelievable, but he was walking the next day! It was finally some much needed good news that came out of the firehouse; of course, it came with a strange twist. One other thing that Casualty #2 regularly did was to play the state lottery. He always played the same numbers every week, numbers that meant something to him. On the weekend before he regained consciousness, his numbers hit. Unfortunately, he did not play because he was in the hospital on life support. He wasn’t bothered by this because the day he awoke was still the luckiest day of his life!

SCOTT JOERGER is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and a former volunteer chief of the Pittsford Fire Department. He has worked as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. He has an associate degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in management.

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