Writings: Fiery Politics by Beth Bowser

Fiery Politics: Good Decisions and Big Egos Seldom Mix Well Click here for a printer friendly version of this page

Originally picked by the magazine The Gonzo Press.

Politics has gotten much too pervasive recently. I absolutely understand why we Americans have been polarized, as politics have insidiously entered every aspect of society. Politics: is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. It has always been common to have die-hard sports fans. Social media seems to have added the group or team aspect to nearly anything. I can recall the silliness of Team Edward versus Team Jacob dynamic! I never read Twilight, but my curiosity impelled me to figure out what the teams were about. Unfortunately, it seems to have gotten much worse. Our apparently natural desire to be part of a winning “team” has gone too far. I’m not commenting specifically on Democrat versus Republican politics but bringing up instances where politics are causing problems within the fire service.

Let me begin by stating my experience is with volunteer fire service only. My grandfather was a firefighter employed in Detroit, MI. Sadly, he was injured on the job, retired early, and he never spoke to me of his time in the fire service. Career fire service may be very similar to volunteer, but I’m only writing about volunteer. One problem that presented itself in my husband’s fire department was training, driver training specifically. It’s uncommon that fire departments get new firetrucks because of the exceptional cost involved. However, when you have a twenty-year-old truck with the diminished functionality that twenty years of hard service engenders, new firetrucks can be necessary. I’m sure you felt, or will feel, very possessive and protective of any newly purchased vehicles you buy and firefighters are no different! However, they took it too far for a shared vehicle. When my husband’s fire department purchased their fancy new truck, they instituted a rule that firefighters had to be trained before being allowed to drive the truck to a call. My husband was told, if he wanted to learn, to reach out when he had time and they’d train him. Sounds great, but the only firefighters able to train the others were always busy. Unsurprisingly then, only four firefighters, all of them officers, were qualified and approved to drive the truck after they had it for nearly two months. The results of his chief’s poor planning came to a head a couple weeks later. We hear the siren blaring as my husband and a few other firefighters rushed off to the fire hall, and upon reaching the hall… did nothing. They, the officers, approved none of the firefighters who reported to the hall to drive the new truck, so they sat. The call was not for a fire, thankfully, but an accident. His station didn’t respond before seven minutes and therefore, rolled over to the next station. He later learned all the trained members were on vacation, quarantining because of COVID-19, out of the area working, or sick. This should never happen. Because the chief and officers wanted to be the only ones driving the new pretty truck, they refused to take the rank and file out driving. That poor decision left trained firefighters to thumb-twiddle when they should have been responding! What if the call had been a fire with people trapped inside? The chiefs cannot allow for potential loss of life because they are holding too tight a rein on who can and cannot drive their fire truck. Yes, each truck is different. So, fire chiefs, please take your firefighters out to learn the differences to ensure you’ll always have enough drivers!

Another big issue we have run across is that some fire stations have a focus that is not smart or helpful to their residents, nor their fellow companion firefighters. Counties, cities, and villages are uniquely sized, both in population and physical distance. I am not complaining about that, although it is a problem, and the district lines sometimes make very little sense. I understand some departments service a sizeable area. Their fire hall, gear and truck therefore may be located a far distance away from many of its firefighters. It makes perfect sense to me that it could take longer for some fire trucks to show up compared to others. That is not a slur against the volunteers being slow. They could be in the shower when the siren goes off, out grocery shopping, working, or anything similar. They are volunteers, not employees. We can't expect them to always remain home for the chance of calls. Fire is unfortunately not so flexible. Every single minute we allow a fire freedom to burn results in the fire doubling. We cannot care about anything but arriving to a fire as quickly as possible and begin putting it out. Every minute without doing so puts the public at risk. Sometimes to avoid being criticized, the firefighters of larger districts tell their companion firefighters to wait in their station rather than gearing up and going to the call. This ensures those companion firefighters cannot show up to a call first. I understand the desire to not waste time on a call that may turn out to be nothing. It may surprise you to know how frequently fires are called in to 911 that turn out to be controlled burns. I fervently hope this understanding is incorrect, but I fear that is not the case. We cannot continue to do this. It’s a horrible disservice to everyone involved. This is doing a disservice to the firefighters that called for the hold, as it may mean they have to fight a fire alone until more trucks arrive, much later than they should be. It is doing a disservice to the companion firefighters who got to their fire hall as fast as they could to remain there sitting and waiting. It is doing an even worse disservice to the homeowners. The homeowners, expect and deserve prompt service to all 911 calls. Yes, they don’t pay for the service, but many contribute either though direct donations or by purchasing food, playing bingo or just partaking of stations’ other fundraising events. Then there are the lawsuits. Our current climate is one of lawsuits. Fire departments normally enjoy discretionary immunity, but there was a lawsuit in October 2018 where a lawsuit was filed against a volunteer fire department. The lawsuit argued the department did not request for backup soon enough, causing a trapped child to die. Even where a judge may rule to apply discretionary immunity, that is still hurting taxpayers as the cities have to provide insurance for lawsuits like this. Would you be willing to pay an additional yearly tax because your fire chief didn’t want to look bad? Because he or she didn’t want to get picked on anymore for being slow? I am not willing to do that. I am not willing to have someone’s child die to stroke someone’s else ego at being the first to arrive at a fire.

Last, I want to bring up another political problem, one much more common for those of us with experience working in white-collar jobs. You likely have had a boss or manager at some point in your professional career who decided on upgrading or purchasing additional software or tools. Maybe you were part of the decision process or weren’t, but regardless, if time goes on for too long, without the new or upgraded software or tools, the complaining starts. Your coworkers grumble about not being able to use the new or upgraded tool or software that your boss has been talking up as a game changer and you likely started training in it already. This type of politics is also in the volunteer fire service because not everything involved with the fire service is volunteer. Police are, of course, paid, as well as 911 dispatch and elected county commissioners and their staff who are in charge of the dispatch systems, water authority and their fire hydrants. In this specific case, our dispatch software had gotten too clunky and difficult to change. Think green screen where only someone who knows all the keyboard commands on how to change dispatch rules could actually safely make a change. The software is so ancient that any requested changes are super expensive contract work. It makes sense that a replacement should happen. Hopefully, this replacement is something user friendly enough that a single training session makes anyone knowledgeable enough to handle updates.

Unfortunately, the person or team that selected the new software made a poor selection. The plan was to replace the old system in the summer of 2020. Here it is early 2021 and the old system is still in use with no one explaining the holdup. Taking a wild guess, there may have been kickbacks or nepotism involved in the software selection, and whoever made that selection refuses to own up to it being a mistake. If something similar happens in a for-profit business, with their telephone system or internet provider, it’s a big deal, but not an emergency. When it’s effecting your emergency systems, it’s huge. The dispatch employees had been using training to get around the issue, but that’s risky and we had a failure as you can expect. A fire call came in and a rookie 911 dispatcher sent out the calls following the county’s emergency protocols. These protocols name what other fire stations, police and, or ambulances are to be dispatched based on the type of emergency. An accident emergency with injury or entrapment will dispatch an ambulance. It may also direct to dispatch police or fire based on other conditions within the emergency. Structure fire emergencies dispatch at least two more companion fire stations. These also can differ on the type of fire and size of the building. A high rise on fire, for example, will dispatch the nearest station that has a ladder truck. This is a very basic explanation and nowhere near covering every possibility. Normally, what the rookie did would have been good enough, but the county the call originated from had requested a while ago to update their emergency protocols. These emergency protocols, also known as run calls, hadn’t gotten updated because 911 had continually been told it was too expensive to pay someone to update the protocols and couldn’t they just wait a little longer for the new system to be in place? This rookie, however, didn’t know the protocols should differ from what the system was using and therefore didn’t manually call in any extra help. We were lucky that no one died from this mistake, but they could not save the home on fire. It also added to bad blood in the community. The station that was not called, but should have been, was physically very close to the home and left the nearby homeowners upset and angry about the fire hall’s apparent refusal to send a truck. It took some time to discover the disconnect, sooth the community and regain trust, but we still don’t have a new dispatch system nor are emergency protocols being updated. I can see it happening again and who knows if we’ll be lucky again or if our luck will run out...

I want to end by thanking all firefighters, volunteer and otherwise! All the calls are managed by firefighters, but only with the support from everyone who shows up to bingos, dinners and other events and through the backing and help of all local fire companies working together. Thank you!