It's been a while since we visited the budgetary arenas of our great cities and towns. Instead of being negative this time, I am going to point out positives in all these stories. Because as it was once said, "There is a silver lining in every dark cloud."
Our first stop is the left coast and the city of Tacoma, Wash. A plan was devised to close a few fire stations and replace them with pickup trucks. The original plan called for removing the fire suppression apparatus with their three-person staffing and replacing them with two people in pickups. One station was only going to be staffed during the day.
We have been down this road many times, fire stations being open during specific hours. I had no idea you could put out a notice of when to schedule emergencies. So basically the pickup trucks will first respond to EMS calls and wait for the real fire trucks to arrive should fire break out.
From the files of beating a dead horse (PETA will get me sooner or later), it's the same old story: the fire chief having to do the same with less. However, as promised there is a good side to this story. If the next-in fire truck with water is unavailable and the pickup trucks arrive first at a working fire, they can help the residents move furniture into the pickup truck for relocation to their next house.
Bonkers in Yonkers
The misguided Yonkers, N.Y., administration has taken an opposite course of action. The mayor, the Honorable Mike Spano, attempted to stop the fire department from first responding. Amazing, in Tacoma we are only first responding and in Yonkers we aren't even going. If these people ever got organized …
Do you remember a couple of years ago the brave souls who protect the nation's capital (I say that because I am not sure what they are called now) were told they needed to go on a day and night shift schedule because it was more cost effective than the 24-hour shift? Meanwhile, up the road an hour and a half in Philadelphia, a study said the firefighters needed to work a 24-hour shift schedule because it was more cost effective.
Nonetheless, Mayor Spano wants to remove the fire department's first response status based on the following statistical data. Sit down and clear your head for this one.
According to Mayor Spano's figures the fire department only handles 42 percent of 911 calls. The police handle 58 percent. I didn't know it was a contest. Furthermore, the fire department responds to 80 percent to 90 percent of the EMS calls. Now wait a minute, the fire department only responds to 42 percent of the 911 calls. How can this be?
But wait it gets better; in Yonkers, if you call for an ambulance the third-service EMS outfit shows up 100 percent of the time. That is one of the most amazing pieces of statistical data I have ever heard.
This guy throws out more percentages than the Weather Channel. So to recap: the police department is at 58 percent, the fire department is at 42 percent and EMS is at 100 percent. That is 200 percent by my count.
The whole thing ended up in court with a judge granting a temporary restraining order to keep the fire department first responding. The mayor's office alleges that a lot of firefighters have lost their medical certification; the union says this is because the city will not pay for the training and recertification.
Let's look at the concept of first responding. The term first responding comes from the Latin phrase "epluribus firsti respondus," which literally translates to "arrive first and save lives."
Most every place under the sun first responds. This is because there are rarely enough ambulances to go around in our over-worked and over-taxed EMS systems.
The engine in Yonkers that first responds at 2 a.m. in the pouring rain ahead of the medic unit and applies oxygen to a person having chest pain probably lessens heart damage. They do CPR on a grandfather who collapsed in a park and maybe save his life.
This is one of the most blatant disregards for the safety of the public I have ever seen. I’m not even sure if there is a positive in this.
In Camden, N.J., the one-time home of Campbell's Soup and the Camden River Sharks, a recent court ruling will rollback firefighters' wages. The court found an arbitrator went too far in requiring the state to fund pay raises.
The pay cuts could be as much as $10,000 in some cases. Gee, thanks for playing. I hope nobody went out and bought a new car with their raise. The positive here is nobody has to worry about being in a higher tax bracket. I am betting the governor of New Jersey is involved somehow.
And finally, one of our perennial favorites. The prince of pensions, the miser of the Midwest, that wild and wacky mayor of St. Louis: the Honorable Francis Slay. Well, he's is at it again.
He has introduced all kinds of ordinances, rules and so forth to abolish the fire department pension and regulate the current pension. All this will end up in court, of course. One of his ideas that caught my eye was upping the age to collect a pension.
Now that will probably work for people who sit in cubicles or collect tolls in the exact-change lane, but for firefighters and police officers, it is mildly insane. What the mayor and his aldermen don't understand is how physically demanding firefighting is. Granted we don't do it every minute of every day, but when we do, it is the hardest work I have ever done.
In St. Louis, the cut off age to apply for the fire department is 33. A military exemption allows people who served their country to be hired up to age 39. Mayor Slay's plan requires St. Louis firefighters to be on the job for 35 years before they can draw their pension.
So using my less-than-rudimentary math skills, I am calculating this person would be 74. Seventy-four years old and riding a fire truck or picking people up off the ground.
A now-retired chief once told me when I was new on the job that once you hit 40 this gets harder and harder to do. He was right.
However, there is a major positive to this story. St. Louis can stage fire apparatus at nursing homes and staff the apparatus with firefighters who reside at the nursing homes. Fire alarms are always going off at nursing homes and there are always EMS calls — imagine what this will do to response times.