Juggling cuts, closures and public expectations

By Charles Bailey

Municipal fire departments continue to deal with uncertain financial times and continue to face pressure from policy makers to provide service with fewer resources. In some lucky cases, the reductions mean only a few positions lost but for many cuts mean closed doors on fire stations.

There comes a point where only the tough questions are left, like what is the nature and extent of the obligation of government to provide fire protection to its citizens and the corollary: given the continued pressure to reduce costs, what does it mean to provide fire protection? (1) As the ability of municipalities to provide fire protection declines, core facets of the relationship between municipal government and the citizen will change.

The first question to be answered is whether municipal government has an obligation to provide fire protection at all. The answer is more obvious in those situations where a specific fire tax is levied, and less obvious where it is not.

But even in those cases where a fire tax is levied it is doubtful that it is attached to any objective measurement of the quality of that service, beyond perhaps the questionable response time standard. In the rural areas, where fire protection is provided by a neighborhood-based volunteer system, fire protection is clearly an extension of civil society and this discussion is moot. However, in the urban, suburban and pseudo-rural areas where people build homes with large foot prints, no pressurized water infrastructure, and no fire protection infrastructure, the questions of municipal obligation are not so clear.

Limits to protection
If government is obliged to provide fire protection, that protection must have limits. Even if the rural citizen deserves the same speedy fire protection as his urban cousin, can he reasonably expect government to provide it? There is an expectation that children are provided equitable education, but we must also acknowledge that some schools are better than others and that even if infinite per student spending were possible it might not be desirable.  

But do the people "deserve" anything? Public education is like fire protection; the government provides both, and the majority of the funding for both comes from taxes and both are inclusive. (2) Municipal fire protection is not, however, completely like public education in that, "Public education is often organized and operated to be a deliberate model of the civil community in which it functions." (2)

The difference is, again, in the rural departments, the volunteer service is an extension of civil community making the distinction less severe.

When there is public debate on fire protection in municipalities it is usually limited by emotional reactions to the perceived loss of protection. A common argument used is, "…if they close my fire station, people will die." That argument is weak because most people do not die in fires. If we wanted to have an impact on accidental death, we would spend more money on fall prevention. Secondly, the argument ignores the truth that any given fire engine can be assigned to any given run at any given time and not available for the "big one," the one where Mrs. Jones needs them the most.

But we don't process the risk of fire using such terms: "Usually people think in binary terms: either something will happen or it won't. So when people hear they have a six in 100,000 chance of dying from a fall, they shelve that risk under the label, 'won't happen to me,' even though falling is in fact the third most common cause of accidental deaths in the United States." (3)  

How people conceive of their exposure to danger has little to do with numbers and everything to do with narratives. All it takes is for one person to hear of a person who died in a fire for all the numbers to become meaningless. This is the simple fact that makes it so hard to close fire stations.

Government must not only make clear the limits of their ability to prevent and protect, they must also educate people and alter expectations about the capabilities of government, including fire protection.

Altering expectations will not be easy, as noted by Wachtendorf and Tierney, "… even those community members who were somewhat educated about the need to mitigate against disasters seemed to mistakenly believe that, if there were any additional steps that could have been taken to make the community safer, those steps would already have been taken by their local government officials." (4) They must understand what the public really expects, what they are willing to pay for and what can be delivered with the allocated resources. In the end, the people get to decide what their government looks like and by extension what their fire protection looks like. It is their choice.

Society still requires a fire service but it requires a fire service that is responsive to local need and more importantly one that is able to engage in rigorous discourse with the public about what they really want from their fire department. Society needs a fire service that is not marching along an out of touch dogmatic path buried in folklore.

End notes

(1) I only speak here of the more metropolitan departments and areas for three basic reasons. First, the rural fire service has always done a lot with a little and they make very different cost analysis because they face very different resource challenges.Second, it is the big metropolitan areas where there is an unconscious expectation that when something bad happens an agent of the government (in this case the fire department) will soon come to make things right. Third, the function of the local volunteer fire department is obviously an example of civil society as distinguished from the forced governmental structures of paid municipal fire departments. Arguably the volunteer service is of the greater civil good because the locality extends to it more directly the measure of worth it wants the organization to have and further can more directly alter the nature and content of the service provided by the organization.

(2) www.En.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_education

(3) Amanda Ripley The Unthinkable: Who survives when disaster strikes and why: Crown publishers New York, New York 2008

(4) Tricia Wachtendorf and Kathleen J. Tierney Disaster Resistant Communities Initiative: Local Community Representatives Share Their Views: Year 3 Focus Group Final Project Report. Report to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Disaster Research Center, University of Delaware
July 2001 www.udel.edu/DRC/archives/Documents/Project%20Impact/YR3.pdf

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