Chief Replies to Consultant

Chief Replies to Consultant

The apparent disdain with which some outsiders view the professional fire services is evident in the opening paragraphs of the “rebuttal” by Mr. Cohn (Bert M. Cohn, vice president, Gage-Babcock & Associates) in the February 1974 issue of Fire Engineering, just as it was evident on pages 91-92 of the 1973 Gage-Babcock study of Milwaukee, which reads: “…many fire department officials will privately acknowledge that on some occasions major fire fighting efforts are being put forth merely to avoid criticism by the public … certain fires are fought for the benefit of the television cameras.”

Even if this were true (and no evidence is cited) it is interesting to note the consultant’s apparent surprise that a tax-supported public agency would logically be responsive to public exposure, in contrast to the operations of a private consultant.

The lengthy IAFC convention parade assailed by Mr. Cohn in fact fulfills one of the prime purposes of the meeting—letting the assembled chiefs see some of the latest equipment on the road (as well as the antique machines from a colorful past). It also helps keep the fire service in the public eye—always a necessity, again, for an agency entirely dependent upon public support. It is absurd to imply that fire departments must not really be shorthanded if they can stage such a parade (involving only a few manhours annually, actually). This makes no more sense than saying that a city doesn’t need a fire chief because if he can be spared to attend the convention he must not be needed at home.

Matter of interpretation

Mr. Cohn quotes former National Commission Chairman Richard E. Bland, who spoke at that convention on the “lack of action to better the fire service,” apparently with the implication that fire officials are apathetic or inert. This is a misinterpretation. We understood Mr. Bland to be saying that it is time we in the fire service stepped up our efforts to get the tools— manpower and otherwise—that we have long recognized as needed to deal with mounting losses.

Mr. Cohn cites an IAFC survey showing that only half of the 400 departments questioned had any fire prevention budget. But, as we all know, small volunteer fire departments nationwide greatly outnumber paid departments. Few small volunteer organizations have any fire prevention budget. Yet with unpaid help plus community support, some of them do an outstanding job of fire prevention programming. Does Mr. Cohn really mean to say that “half of 400 departments” spend nothing on fire prevention because they don’t believe in it? Nonsense!

In Milwaukee, as the record shows, we would like nothing better than to have a fire prevention budget and staff within our department, as we did for years. It was taken away from us— we didn’t abandon it or let it die through neglect. And there is much more to fire prevention than the fire inspections which Gage-Babcock believes can be done quite well by outsiders.

IAFC making surveys

Mr. Cohn goes on to point out that the IAFC “recognizes the need for outside consulting services … and the IAFC has started to make community surveys.” Absolutely—the IAFC recognizes the need for such surveys undertaken by experts in the fire service, so it is doing this work itself.

Consultants who “have never carried a hose into a blazing building” are indeed at work in the field. The young consultant, who was the only person to appear in Milwaukee to do Gage-Babcock’s 1973 research, admitted his only qualification for the work was 18 months as a small-town volunteer fireman. We didn’t need “one phone call” to “set the record straight” on that.

Mr. Cohn implies that the Milwaukee Fire Department was somehow at fault because a consultant “had to be called in” twice by the city—presumably to do some job we were incapable of doing. As our article indicated, city officials admitted 10 years ago that the initial purpose of calling in GageBabcock was to find some way of cutting fire fighter weekly hours without raising costs. The reorganization proposed by Gage-Babcock was a means to that end, not a means of remedying some glaring deficiencies in our operation.

Department accomplishments

He goes on to say that during the years 1964-1973, the fire department “sat on its hands.” Let’s look at some of the things we got done while sitting on our hands, often only after a hard struggle:

  1. Station 29, closed as recommended by Gage-Babcock, was reopened in 1967 because of overwhelming public pressure (a force tending to be discounted in consultants’ reports).
  2. Studies led to the elimination of all canister masks to reduce the risk to fire fighters’ lives.
  3. A pilot installation of telephonetype alarm boxes was made. This, incidentally, was a 1973 Gage-Babcock proposal—but it has failed to do the job. Other methods, initiated locally, are now having newsworthy success in reducing false alarms.
  4. As acknowledged by the consultant’s latest report, we began use of larger-diameter (3-inch) hose in 1972.
  5. We actively supported the establishment of a college fire technology curriculum, from which the first 16 men of the Milwaukee Fire Department graduated in 1969. This is continuing.
  6. One new station has been built, another abandoned, and several companies relocated. After our own studies of shifting response patterns, a complete realignment of battalion boundaries was made in late 1972.
  7. A new ladder company was organized to cover a fast-growing area at the edge of the city despite a “tight money” municipal budget.
  8. In 1972, the city purchased facilities for a new fire training academy— long sought by us and recommended by Gage-Babcock. We still haven’t been able to occupy it because of the lack of money for the needed remodeling and additions.
  9. Successful use of high expansion foam commenced in 1970. We now have two foam generators for this specialized operation.

Reason for own study

Mr. Cohn criticizes us for compiling our own written study of local fire defenses “only after” Gage-Babcock’s own report was out. For years we have had our own plans for improvement, both long and short range, as a review of budget proposals will show. But a bulwark against what we regard as crippling proposals by outsiders requires something broader—hence the special study we made.

As for “suddenly deciding” more fire companies were needed, it should be clear that the reason the study was asked for was because of our request for an additional fire station on our fast-growing northwest side. The skyrocketing commercial and residential growth there has coincided with the period of Gage-Babcock’s 1973 study. Furthermore, we were trying to emphasize that we have been “making do” with less than we needed even before that study but have had to face financial limits imposed on us. Now we are asked to cut back even further.

Continued Mr. Cohn, “We have no intention of using the pages of this magazine to refute all of the allegations set forth by Chief Stamm.” This was indeed true, for Mr. Cohn in no way addressed himself to the significant issues of handling simultaneous alarms, of relying on off-duty men in place of on-duty companies at greater alarms, of insurance rate hikes, of life safety, or fire fighter injury, which we raised in our original article.

Statements in the Gage-Babcock report pertinent to those issues, which were dealt with in that article, do not appear in Mr. Cohn’s “Summary of Recommendations,” but they do appear in the report itself.

Use of ladder trucks

To quote Mr. Cohn further, “We did not say, as Stamm claims, that ladder trucks can be used as engine companies by putting booster tanks on them.” But page 80 of the GageBabcock report reads: “Occasionally, a ladder truck will arrive at a fire before an engine … A small tank and pump would allow it to operate a 1 1/2-inch line until an engine company arrives.” Certainly, if engine companies are reduced by 30 percent, while ladder companies are cut only 9 percent and engine company responses are reduced (as Gage-Babcock proposes), the number of occasions when the ladder company gets to a working fire first is going to rise drastically. That ladder company must then “act as an engine company” whether Gage-Babcock “says” so or not, and with its single line, no hydrant pumping capability, plus limited water supply, it will be a poor substitute indeed.

In one respect, then, we must agree with Mr. Cohn, for the entire report does indeed “speak for itself.”

We are accused of having such a “weak position” that we must resort to attempts to “discredit the consultant.” That should not be an issue. For when clearly understood, as is the case with anyone knowledgeable about the fire service, the consultant’s own proposals tend more to discredit his report than any opinion we might express.

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