In one corner, the people who think that what the South Fulton Fire Department did was reprehensible. In the other, those who think that you need to "pay to spray". In the classic Firehouse Zen outlook, let's go to the root of the problem. Here we are in a brand new age of doing more with less. It's our creed in emergency services.
The beauty of this all is that while there are those who want to limit the "reach" of government, we have to remember that the point of having government involvement in the first place is to protect us in our vulnerable moments. I am neither a tax-and-spender nor a teabagger. I don't march in lockstep to anyone's platform. I have an open mind and I evaluate where things are beneficial to my community and things detrimental, and balance the risk vs. a reasonable cost. It doesn't seem to me that either of the extremes are acceptable answers.
This is a complicated issue and it can't be solved by just glossing over the sound-bite material. There are departments who have been doing the subscription thing for years. Personally, I suggested to some funding-challenged departments a number of years ago that perhaps you could do a "soft-landing" subscription: you pay (in advance) for spray, but if you don't pay (in advance), you REALLY pay. Like 500% of the subscription rate, charged to the insurance company. Something tells me the insurance companies would be insisting you pay or you don't get insurance. Something also tells me that if you fail to pay in this scenario, they WON'T be paying anyway. But subscription service, while it seems like a logical solution, is fraught with peril. There are just too many "what-ifs" to make it a workable solution to the whole.
We do have a responsibility to the community to protect life, property and the environment. But we are painted into a corner when we can't raise revenue to sustain our operations, be it a fairly low cost solution or the full-on urban response solution. Thus we return to the risk vs. benefit assessment each community must undertake before deciding, "Okay, we don't want paid providers" or "We are going to shut down companies", or "Our risk is low enough that we can make it with an all-volunteer force". This is something that has to be decided locally, but by responsible individuals who aren't just looking at the bottom line. There is nothing wrong with any of these scenarios if they can be applied effectively. The problem is that when they are not, and the decision is made to do this anyway, it is often done with catastrophic results. You know, of course, who gets left holding the bag in that case, don't you? (That would be us, in case you didn't get that hint.)
The elected officials of your community are charged with more than just appearing ad nauseum on your TV screen for several months leading up to November, although for some, it's the only time I ever see them. They are charged with making decisions that benefit the community and uphold societal standards. I know of no society who thinks it's okay to screw the vulnerable at the benefit of the privileged. Well, I take that back- I know of no RESPONSIBLE society who thinks that's okay. For any "leader" of a community to say, we're going to go with a subscription fee for service and it's okay to opt out of it at the risk of losing everything you have, it seems to me like you are taking a chance that this could go terribly wrong. Sending someone a letter to confirm they are "not in" doesn't sound too cool either (I have had too many personal experiences with undelivered registered mail to have confidence in that solution). I think if everyone was paying the fee and suddenly, someone wasn't, I'd have someone give them a call and make a face-to-face confirmation to find out what the problem was. Can you not afford it now? Are you saying you are okay if we don't respond? I really think some follow-up is required here before saying, you are now on your own.
What may have seemed like a good solution has become national news, but it didn't have to be. Kirschenbaum in Chaos Organization and Disaster Management suggests that the whole social aspect of disaster response was overtaken by a bureaucracy concerned with job protection and cost reimbursement years ago anyway and this whole event pretty much emphasizes his point. But when the community insists on having service but is unwilling to pay for it, other solutions must be found for funding. In this context, "helping neighbors" for purely altruistic reasons has been trumped with who is paying for service and who is not. This takes the whole emergency services as a business concept to a very predictable level. But there really is balance to be achieved in every situation. The challenges facing us in communities like Oak Park, IL and Xenia, OH illustrate there is such a thing as when the "fiscally conservative" become unreasonable, but compelling. When we insist on the gold standard and our community can only afford the aluminum version, we expose ourselves to this kind of rhetoric. I'm not saying that's the case in these communities, but the situations making national headlines there only encourage community activists elsewhere who already think a scorched-earth approach to cutting the municipal budget is appropriate. Our job as leaders is to foster innovative and efficient organizations while maintaining a responsible budget. Again, balance is in order.
While we use the words "customer service" as a way to describe our efforts, it again goes back to doing what's right for our neighbors and people who visit and work in our community. While there are those of us who are paid to do this, we have to remember that it is a service we are paid to do often because the volume and type of emergencies we are called to solve exceed the community's readily available resources. Or maybe it's because we don't care enough about our neighbors anymore because we're so wrapped up in "me". Regardless, until people begin to give away fire apparatus, permit us to operate without insurance, and clothe us in turnouts out of the kindness of their hearts, we have to pay for this stuff. Therefore, every community, like it or not, has to endure funding these endeavors, through taxes, donations or subscriptions. It's up to you how you do it. But it's a requirement that it be done.
Also on Firehouse Zen …
- Your Altruism Is Hereby Noted – January 28, 2013
- “What You Need” Continues – January 7, 2013
- The Measuring Contest – April 22, 2013
- Happy Independence Day! And Here’s What Your Firefighters Are Doing Today… – June 30, 2012