Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
March 2001 #3

Training our firefighters

by Barbara Anderson

Part II of two parts

Since Governor Cellucci proposed extending the police higher education law to firefighters, I've communicated with representatives of the fire service and public officials in this and other states hoping to properly inform readers of this column about the issue.

Let's start with two basic assumptions that I believe are held by most of us civilians.

1. Public safety in general is the primary reason we have government. While we must always weigh risk vs. cost -- it would be foolish to have a police bodyguard for every citizen and a fire station on every street -- we should fund adequate public safety before we do anything else ... or nothing else matters for long.

2. Firefighters are heroes just for signing up, for being willing to do a job that can turn extremely dangerous. They must respond to not only fires, but hazardous waste spills, water and ice accidents, terrorism and earthquakes.

Others of my assumptions, however, did not hold up.

I had thought, for instance, that all Massachusetts firefighters got basic training at the Firefighters Academy before they arrived at the local firehouse to work.

Fact: There is no state law requiring any training at all for firefighters. Unlike most professions from barber to nuclear physicist, firefighters do not need a license or degree of any kind to get a job. One cannot even go to the Fire Academy unless he first has been hired as a firefighter. There is presently a backlog for the 11-week basic course, and in some communities, recruits are working with just local training.

A firefighter told me that in his northern U.S. state "the Department of Commerce has established rules for firefighters and among them are a requirement for all firefighters, whether career or volunteer, to have completed the minimum training program at a vocational adult education college before engaging in interior firefighting operations. Many fire departments here set their own (higher) entry-level requirements."

I asked about privatization. One firefighter insisted that it doesn't work, except perhaps, where municipalities keep tight control. However, another e-mail came in from the west.

"Privatized firefighting is alive and well in Scottsdale, AZ. I was employed by Rural/Metro in (another) County as a private fire fighter. Its Scottsdale operation went union about two years ago, but continues to be a much more cost-effective operation than conventional government-run fire departments. ... Rural/Metro has emergency services operations running from Canada to South America. Of note in the US are Crash/Fire/Rescue operations for the enormous FedEx hub in Memphis and fire protection and EMS for Knoxville County, TN."

The Massachusetts political culture won't allow privatization so there is no point in dwelling on this. The question is, will our mostly career, all-government firefighters get their own version of the police education benefit, giving them pay raises and additional pensions as they receive college degrees?

I would hate to see firefighting become a job that required a college education; much of the job is done now by blue-collar professionals and volunteers who are entirely competent. But some other aspects are more complex than they used to be and more specialized education is surely valuable.

Massachusetts colleges offer fire science courses; these are not, however, controlled or monitored for content or value -- which is exactly the problem with the police version of the higher education law. Also, as more fire departments are trained to do emergency medical runs and fire education, it's important to make sure they're not too busy to do the one thing no other department can do -- fight fires.

The first priority should be to make Fire Academy training mandatory before putting any recruit or civilian in harm's way. The academy is funded by the state through a charge on insurance companies. But if it needs to be expanded, state and local government should make sure public safety comes before sports stadiums or non-essential services.

This does not mean giving police and fire unions everything they ask for: Their pay and benefits should be driven by the marketplace, and the bottom-line fact is that there is no shortage of applicants for these jobs. Those who acquire additional skills should certainly be eligible, within the restrictions of the marketplace, for promotion and additional pay.

I've never understood the thing about union group-negotiated pay rates. But then, I've never understood union group-related work conditions either. In my private sector world, each firefighter would negotiate his own pay, work hours and job requirements. Then we wouldn't see the ugly sight we saw in Boston recently when firefighters unhappy with negotiations mobbed the mayor and spit at him and his wife.

However, I do understand there is value in the present knight/brotherhood system that contributes to an esprit de corps within fire departments and among firefighters around the world. As one of them told me, "My dad was a volunteer firefighter for as long as I can remember. It is very hard to explain what this job means to me; it is as much a calling as a job."

Many people with higher educations and better-paying jobs would envy him that.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem Evening News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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