Time to Rethink Our Fire Departments


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© Jack Cashill
Published in ingramsonline.com - June 2011
Between the Lines: Pointed Perspectives and Penetrating Punditry


very time I drive down Lee Boulevard and see the much-too-pretty fire trucks of the Leawood Fire Department, I think to myself, "Maybe it is time to re-imagine the art and politics of firefighting."

Leawood has a fire station for every 10,000 of its affluent residents. The two stations on Mission Road are just 20 blocks apart—2½ miles. Each station is manned around the clock by a professional battalion of firefighters headed by a shift commander. If they need backup, those commanders can call upon a fire chief, deputy fire chief, training chief, fire marshal, and fire-prevention specialist.

I don’t doubt the skills and good intention of all involved, but I question why otherwise modern Leawood employs a centuries-old fire model created for densely-packed cities chock-a-block with four-story, wood-frame walk-ups.

In Leawood, no two houses touch. Hell, in some parts of town, people drive to visit their next-door neighbors. Not a single resident has been killed or injured by fire in the past four years (excluding unreported bong mishaps), and it could be longer still. Four years is as far back as the public records go.

That much said, last year, the city spent nearly 10 times as much on fire protection ($6.3 million, roughly $800 for a family of four) as it suffered in fire losses ($686,000).

To be sure, the department does more than fight fires. It also responds to explosions, building collapses, trench rescues, and, according to its Web site, “incidents involving domestic terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD).” Enough said?

I don’t mean to pick on Leawood. It is a good-looking, well-managed city with a savvy mayor, and I would hope to live there when I grow up. But like every other city in the metropolis, it accepts a 19th-century firefighting model as a given.

Kansas City, Mo., whose firefighters often do fight real fires, is no more imaginative. The other day, as I was leaving my office on Westport Road, I was drawn to the corner of Broadway and Westport by the wail of fire trucks.

Two had already arrived. Two more were on the way. Two police cars, an ambulance, and two tow trucks beat the last two fire trucks to the corner to deal with what turned out to be a two-car collision that ruined the day for a few people, but not likely their lives.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Most obviously, we cannot afford it. Our cities, our states, and our nation are pretty much broke. That happens when even Republican pols spend like drunken Democrats. Then too, this kind of emergency excess can cause more problems than it solves. Racing to a minor fire in a 25-ton truck is as dangerous as racing to a major one and may be more dangerous than the fire itself.

In May of this year, two Platte County fire trucks collided on the way to a house fire, sending the chief to the hospital on an air ambulance and injuring four others. In February, a Kansas City fireman lost his leg when he ditched his truck to avoid colliding with a wayward car. Two years ago, a Kansas City fire truck struck and killed a seven year-old boy.

Those who don’t care about other people’s money or other people’s lives, please note that polar bears suffer, too. The next time you see these critters shvitzing on a dwindling iceberg, remember that fire trucks only get about 3 or 4 miles to the gallon.

There are more problems still. Today, a flood of applicants overwhelms every city with a firefighter opening, usually by a factor of 50 or more, even in a good economy. In Kansas City, probies start at $30,000 per year, about the norm, which suggests that the applicants know more about the benefits than the taxpayers do.

I have spent enough time in firehouses to know that the most desirable benefit is time. In many cities, a firefighter works three or four 24-hour shifts in a given two-week period. “The guys seem to love it because every day is like a Friday,” writes one fireman on a relevant blog.

Having 10 or so days off every fourteen, most of my firemen friends do not have jobs on the side. They have businesses. If they are routinely fighting major fires, it is hard to be-grudge them their perks, but if they are not, I do.

Ironically, in the wake of 9/11, we have come to demand more of our buildings but less of our firefighters.

Those actually fighting fires should be strong, fit, and smart. The “strong and fit” part is obvious. As Jim Flynn and Kevin Dwyer reveal in their book, 102 Minutes, the only New York firefighters who provided real value on Sept. 11 a decade ago were those able to climb 40, 60, maybe 80 flights of stairs wearing 30 to 40 pounds of gear and carrying firefighting tools nearly as heavy.

This required the strength and stamina of a Navy Seal or an NFL linebacker. Although no one can question the valor of the fireman who entered the buildings, few had the requisite conditioning to do much good. Ironically, in the wake of 9/11, we have come to demand more of our buildings but less of our firefighters. To accommodate female applicants, our courts have all but outlawed serious physical testing.

The “smart” part is obvious too, at least to those who have had to tackle a chemical fire or a burning oil refinery. These firefighters damn well better know what they are doing before they get anywhere near such a fire, especially if they are leading others in. But for fear of “disparate” ethnic outcomes, the courts have declared testing for smarts even more taboo than testing for strength.

The Kansas City Chiefs employ the precise number of people needed to accomplish the task at hand for each position. Indeed, they get punished for having too many guys on the roster and penalized for putting too many on the field. And yes, they are all “guys.” The Chiefs test relentlessly to hire the best people and don’t give a hoot about the obvious race and gender disparities that result from the testing.

On every count, Kansas City area fire departments do very nearly the opposite, often under duress from unions, politicians, busybodies, and courts. This makes no sense. Sparkling fire trucks or no, the humblest Leawood firefighter provides a more essential service than the proudest of the Chiefs.

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