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Have it your way: The Burger King age

For years customer service meant delivering what the customer wants, but these days it may not be what the customer needs – whether they realize it or not

When it comes to firefighter safety and survival, things have continued to improve in 2010. I think greater awareness has been the key combined with training, and we are beginning to see the results. Clearly things are going to happen sometimes that aren’t avoidable — there are times when all the right things are done but conditions change while firefighters are in the process of making a rescue.

But most times they are avoidable — the predictable heart attacks, the crashes, the no seat belt ejections — and these are the ones we have to find solutions to. Actually we know the solutions, it’s a matter of “local FD leadership” getting aggressive and saving us from ourselves.

Never in history has the fire service had so many training resources available. If there’s one thing that has happened to improve firefighter safety, it’s the Internet as there’s so much information freely available to firefighters now.

But I think in terms of the bigger picture, one of the biggest impacts currently on firefighter survival on the fireground is the economic situation. If you take a look back now, the problems within the economy started a long time ago — either people didn’t pay attention or chose not to. But in terms of funding, the fire service always thought it was untouchable. However, this isn’t the first time in history there’s been firefighter layoffs; it has happened over the years although this is certainly the worst we have seen.

Cuts across the board
Fire departments are having to eliminate equipment, apparatus, buildings, and they are having to eliminate both support and firefighter personnel. It’s not unusual to see in the headlines now a community looking at a 25 percent cut or even higher. We are also seeing communities upping their retirement ages and lowering their benefits. I think what’s being missed by local officials is that firefighters should be entitled to different retirement rules and benefits.

But, perhaps in some areas we have pushed it too far. Also, there are cases — and fortunately they aren’t too frequent — that make us all look bad. For instance, a firefighter who retires on three-quarters disability, tax-free, and is running marathons and working at other fire departments. People see this and say, ‘enough is enough.’ and unfortunately these are the stories that have been making national headlines, as few as they may be.

When the public is doing fine, they don’t pay too much attention to what is going on around them. But now everyone is worried about their own jobs and their income, they are now starting to ask questions about what local government is doing with all their tax dollars and we, when not prepared, can be easy yet unfair targets. If there’s ever been a time for fire departments to really show their value to their communities and to market themselves, it is now.

Unfortunately, many people now are under the misconception that they don’t need as many firefighters as there were before. But in many cases, we’ve been guilty of not showing the public the exact reasons why we need a certain amount of people responding to and operating on the fireground.

Many have taken the wrong approach, going in in a threatening way, saying people will die if cutbacks are made. Sure people will die, but because that is such a distant issue for most, they (from citizens to elected officials) really don’t care.

A new approach
We need a different approach, to say, “If you give us this much staffing, equipment and funding then this is the service we can deliver for you. If you give us 30 firefighters for a 30-firefighter fire, then there’s a hell of a chance we can take care of that fire for you; we can save that business for you, the town won’t lose income from its loss and we have the best chance at getting the occupants out. But if we only have 10 firefighters having to deal with a 30-person fire you very well may suffer a loss.” People need to understand that.

We have got to be able to come up with performance measures, showing what we do and why we do it. Another important aspect is once the community or elected officials decide what level of service they want, then it’s incumbent upon the fire chief to determine what risks the firefighters will or won’t take.

I’m not talking about persons trapped in a house as we will take extraordinary risks to save a life — but when the people are out, and we don’t have enough firefighters to properly handle the fire, something or someone is going to suffer.

At some point the chief must make the tactical and procedural decisions of what we can and cannot do, other than on those rare rescue occasions, and even then the occupants may be shit out of luck if we don’t have the resources. We can only do so much with so much.

Do you know of any community where they have cut back garbage collections and the garbagemen can still pick up as much as they used to? When a community cuts the FD to bare bones level, they cannot pretend that their FD is staffed like in children’s books, where the trucks have 10 firefighters each and we save every house and life. That’s a fantasy-and clearly some city hall folks live in a fantasy world, at the expense of their unknowing taxpayers.

Finally, now is the time for us to throw our ego out of the window. Take the ego test and ask yourself these questions: Are you doing what’s best for the public? Is the closest, most qualified department and equipment responding, regardless of border lines? Are you training like you should be? Are you being good stewards of the public’s money? If there were a fire at your home, what would you want to respond?

The Burger King age
As some folks say, the public is paying for a service and this is the Burger King age — the public wants it their way. Unfortunately they are starting to go without the extras and think they can live without many of services we provide. Actually, they really don’t know. The average taxpayer is clueless. So when their FD is cut, they are unaware of what may or may not respond until their stuff is on fire and then they will find out.

If a community says “lay off three firefighters,” they need to understand the impact that will have on the service we can provide. And fire departments need to look at the cost of a firefighter as it relates to an individual taxpayer in that community and make sure the public knows what the figure is — it probably works out as a couple of bucks for each person in a community a year.

So the question must be are the cuts worth it to save just a few bucks per taxpayer and what will be the realistic impact of those cuts? We have to be very honest, factual and with little emotion. Think of it as your insurance. Pay for crappy insurance and as long as you don’t make a claim, all is good. But make that claim when it’s needed and you then find out your coverage sucks … well, now you have a problem.

Saving money in a community by unrealistically cutting the FD is the same thing. It is no big deal until you dial 9-1-1. And when they dial 9-1-1 and a lot less shows up than what they expected, the results can be tragic for them — and for us.

The key is for us to well educate the public and elected officials well before the fire. They need to know what their “insurance policy” (your FD) will deliver — and what it won’t deliver when they make their claim (the 9-1-1 call for a fire).

It’s a small price when you explain it that way.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. He also serves as Lexipol’s senior fire advisor and is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Goldfeder is a member of the Board of Directors for several organizations: the IAFC, the September 11th Families Association and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). He also provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions. He has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees, has authored numerous articles and books, and presented several sessions at industry events. Chief Goldfeder co-hosts the website
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