FACE THE NATION
BY BILL MANNING
In many respects and many places, the fire service in America is underprepared.
The Politics of Survival has pushed fire departments into a diversification scramble. Unfortunately, the majority of these services are not direct revenue producers, and in resource-challenged departments dilution of service quality is not just a threat.
Chiefs who are working their tails off to produce magic without a magic bag take it personally when it`s suggested they`re coming up short because they can`t get 11 or 12 people to the scene for a marginally safe interior attack on a two-line fire in a 212-story private dwelling. But if you can`t assemble such resources within 10 minutes or so after receipt of alarm, then in most cases we`re talking… hmmm… exposure protection–that`s right.
Running three apparatus with a total of five firefighters and an officer as the first-alarm assignment is considered normal, inevitable in some cases. Who ventilates? Who performs the search, one firefighter without a radio? Mutual aid has become a first-alarm survival tactic, rounding out what you needed 20 minutes ago.
The prospects for solving the underpreparedness (not unpreparedness!) dilemma at the local level are dismal. Money and manpower are in short supply. Scaling back service diversification scrapes against the political imperative of the `90s. The fire service has swallowed the city managers` bait: Don`t tell a fireman he can`t do it with only half the resources he really needs! And all the public knows is that when an alarm sounds, those big, state-of-the-art red or green or blue or white trucks from the Community Partnership and Structure Renewal Department will roll, so all is well, our babies as safe as they possibly can be. As long as the public is feeling secure, perhaps now is not the best time to bring up the impact 20 years of inadequate on-scene manpower has had on the more than 40 percent rise in the rate of civilian injuries per 1,000 residential fires, nationwide.
Historically, fire (and, by extension, the wide range of other emergencies handled by the fire department) has been perceived as strictly a local problem. It is true that geography, diversity, politics, and other factors make local determination of fire protection levels preferable; however, communities cannot possibly keep pace with the inherent costs for high-quality, all-encompassing emergency services expected of the fire department.
Furthermore, fire is as local an issue as violent crime, Whitewater, and secondhand smoke–a local event with national repercussions. A fire occurs in this country on average every 15 seconds. More than 4,000 civilians die and about 30,000 civilians are injured from it each year. 100,000 firefighters are injured in the line of duty each year. More than 85,000 civilians–approximately equal to the population of Fort Collins, Colorado–died in their homes from fire in the past 20 years. At well upward of $100 billion annually, fire and all costs associated with it represent as much as two percent of the U.S. gross national product. This puts fire among the first order of economic concerns in this country. But ask Joe Citizen to name the top 10 problems in America, and fire won`t make the list.
The public`s lack of appreciation for fire`s drain on national prosperity–paid for mostly by local and state taxes and the private sector–has haunted the fire service for years. It`s why the fire service is way back in line of those queuing up to the federal trough. It`s why the National Fire Academy operates on $5 million for a fire service of more than one million members. Why in Washington the fire service`s appropriation most of the time is a pat on the back. Well, excuse me, but the fire service needs substance, not sentiment, and plenty of it.
With Washington`s well-substantiated focus on terrorism, you may have supposed the fire service would gain from a massive distribution of funds for equipment and hands-on training to beef up the first-response-to-terrorism capabilities of fire departments across the country. Wrong. In total, the fire service receives $5 million for grants to metropolitan departments (direct money); $7.5 million for terrorism awareness training for the 120 most populated cities (indirect money; one firefighter from each of the 120 departments is trained to a basic awareness level, beyond which the cost of full department training reverts back to the local jurisdiction); a second worldwide terrorism conference with 400 participants (indirect money); $23 million to train fire departments of 27 selected cities (indirect money; interestingly, Oklahoma City is not one of the 27); $10.5 million to organize Metro Medical Strike Teams in the 20 most populated cities (indirect money); a possible task force study to determine the feasibility of a national terrorism training site (no money yet); and new terrorism courses offered by the National Fire Academy. Get the picture?
Your fire department faces a real potential for a terrorist incident–chemical, radiological, biological–it doesn`t require a lot of imagination. You are far removed from Metro Medical Strike Teams. You don`t have a department haz-mat unit, and the regional team is not yet full-steam-ahead with its “terrorist technician” program. You are 12 hours from any DOD assistance. You were not one of the 120 initial cities slated for basic terrorism awareness training by the Department of Justice. You`re not one of the 27 major metropolitan centers trained by the DOD. You`re hanging out there, naked, with your 30 firefighters, six of whom, in turnouts and SCBA, entered the targeted hospital, or mall, or office building, or abortion clinic, and you are damned if you do and damned if you don`t…. Scary?
A few savvy lobbyists quietly navigating the halls of Congress are not enough for a disparate, fragmented lobby so long neglected by those too willing to let a national problem be shouldered almost exclusively by local and private entities. We are at the center of a national issue that must be taken to the American public through a media blitz. The general media have not picked up on our story because we haven`t made our story known–and be advised it is a lot more interesting and closer to the people than animal rights, global warming, presidential sexual habits, and a thousand other stories that make national news and shows every night.
It`s time for prime time, time to face the nation with full-page ads in major newspapers, hot news on the AP wire, 30-second commercials on the broadcast networks, and appearances on Nightline (why not?). Let the American people decide how important their safety, prosperity, and future are to them. I am ready to help get the ball rolling–give me the word.