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When is a firefighter a cop?

Taking on added authority and responsibility of policing is a slippery slope for the fire service

There are times when the taste of a news story just won't completely leave your mouth. It seems to linger in some quiet corner of your consciousness; it's that mild little itch you can't quite scratch away.

We ran a piece last week about the fire department in Oak Ridge, Tenn. You remember it; it is a story about the city that gave its firefighters the authority to write parking tickets when they find a vehicle in a fire lane, blocking a fire department connection hookup, or too near a hydrant.

They will be trained in the proper ticket-writing procedure and given the title special police officer. They will have the power to issue $25 fines.

I hate it when motorists are too lazy or too self important to find a place to park other than an area reserved for fire and EMS vehicles. They are essentially flipping their middle fingers at anyone who may need an emergency service.

Seems harmless
I can see the rationale for the Oak Ridge plan. Cops haven't the time to go around writing these tickets; the firefighters are being trained, their power is only for issuing those specific tickets — not the power to arrest; and it is only a $25 ticket.

Most of those who left comments believe this is a good idea, many wish they had that authority.

Yet, I can't shake that weird aftertaste this story leaves me with. And I'm not alone. Some of those who left comments offered words of caution. And when I asked a few fire chiefs what they thought, the reactions were mixed.

Obviously, police-like authority is nothing new to the fire service. Every fire-code building inspection or arson investigation bestows some level of authority on fire personnel. Conflict with those under scrutiny is common.

And involvement with police is also nothing new. Outside of normal incidents, firefighters have been, wittingly or otherwise, drawn into riots and large-scale civil disobedience. The physical danger to firefighters is well documented.

Tread lightly
At least for me, that police/fire line is one I'm hesitant to see us cross. The first problem, and one that directly applies to Oak Ridge, is one of public relations.

The love-fest firefighters and their publics shared post 9/11 has been replaced by feelings of animosity over salaries, pensions and other budgetary concerns. The current recession has changed the landscape.

Writing paper and being seen as the bad guy, even by those self-important numbskulls, is not a good thing at a time like this. And, of course, this is compounded if a fire department's vehicles of good public relations, such as public education efforts, have been sliced out of the budget.

I'm also concerned about the intoxicating effect of authority. Not long ago, a fire marshal was found to have done nothing wrong when he used his fire department vehicle to make a traffic stop. He believed the motorist was swerving.

Most traffic stops go without incident. But when they go bad, they go very bad and usually end up with shots fired.

Even writing a ticket at the superstore's fire lane could turn ugly fast when egos get stoked. And while the firefighter issuing the ticket may have the courage and ability to physically handle a confrontation, he or she does not have the training to diffuse it nor the arrest power that can often prevent it.

And once you have some policing authority in place, will it grow? Authority is intoxicating.

Will the next step be the right to issue moving violations for motorists who fail to yield the right of way to emergency vehicles? It is clearly a problem, but one that might be better solved with apparatus bumper cams that could generate tickets the way intersection cameras do for those who ignore the other red lights.

In the end, what Oak Ridge is trying may turn out for the best. I do hope they proceed with a healthy level of caution.

I also suspect that I'm not the only one still trying to scratch this pesky itch. So, please, leave your comments and keep the conversation going.

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