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Conundrum of Public Safety

Public Safety is in crisis with fire stations closed, firefighters and police officers laid off and the demand for emergency services at an all time high. What does this mean to our citizens?

It’s an interesting question without a viable solution necessary to solve this multifaceted problem of Public Safety. It is a multilayered problem requiring incorporating all of the other issues facing our services including the problems facing our nation and the slow erosion of our liberties in the name of public safety. The meaning of the word conundrum is found in Webster’s stating: a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun; a question or problem having only a conjectural answer and finally an intricate and difficult problem. Personally I like the latter definition of an intricate and difficult problem.

Public Safety, police and fire have always been struggling for financial support from government entities to include Federal, State and local government with tax dollars and federal grants originating from those tax dollars. The public safety entities have been standing in line with their tin cups extended asking for additional support from our government entities or the tax payer for adequate support to provide a safe and adequate public safety net for the citizens and a safe work environment for the police and firefighters. Now with Sequestering, whatever that entails, and additional tax decreases, we are seeing a reduction of continuing financial support of public safety in the name of policy, legislative mandates or political game playing.

With the recent spate of tragic shootings using assault weapons, the focus of public safety is centered right now on our 2nd Amendment rights and the perceived assault on our right to bear arms. What of the other public safety protections that were designed by our forefathers to protect our other rights, equally important as the 2nd Amendment. The Patriot Act for example created after the intelligence failure and attack against our nation on 9/11 have blunted those freedoms and personal rights which now include warrantless search and seizure, random wire tapping, invasion of our email and other methods of personal communication to taking off our shoes at the airport, nearly strip searching old people in wheelchairs and assaulting children in the name of public safety.

Hundreds of millions are spent on these programs that do not appear to have produced one terrorist or credible threat against our great nation. Every day our firefighters are on the streets protecting those citizens the government has apparently forgotten with less and less financial support from all governmental agencies. Yet, our elected officials continue to tinker with Social Security, Medicare and other health and welfare programs for our citizens, denigrating hard working Americans safety nets and calling those benefits of living in a democratic society entitlements. This is while our government is supporting failing governments, fighting tribal and un-winnable wars in 3rd world hellholes killing our young men and women, supporting those dictators and other questionable activities with our tax dollars instead of REINVESTING those dollars into our failing infrastructure, supporting local public safety agencies and improving the quality of education, health care and education. What a travesty.

The real meaning of what we are seeing is abandonment by our government and citizens and the support of public safety. An example is the deplorable condition in Detroit, Washington DC and other larger cities where fire and EMS responses and police events are at an all time high and those cities are closing fire stations and reducing staffing on fire apparatus, EMS units and reducing police presence. The citizens in turn break into those closed fire stations and steal the equipment stored in there. Why aren’t they marching on City Hall demanding improved fire protection? I am going to include the police as a part of this article as in many cases, a combined police and fire response is warranted due to the apparent open season on the killing of firefighters.

The problem is not limited to the major cities and town as it percolates down to the small communities like Corvallis, Oregon. In order to stave off the reduction of public services, this city like many others have relied on adding one fee or another to include levies, increased utility bills, additional fees, raised property and sales taxes and other revenue generators in order to stave off the bogyman at the door balancing the yearly city budget. Again, the annual we need the money in order to operate at our current level of services is predictable – they will want more money and raise the taxes and fees and cut essential services – like public safety. This is the universal version of the "Gordian Knot". One of the solutions in Corvallis is a Public Safety Tax – yet another tax spread equitably across the board bringing in those formerly sacred cows of Universities and other tax exempt entities into the taxpaying fold.

Quite rightly so, citizens are tired of the “business as usual” solution and the request for more money to support programs that seriously need a sharp pencil and better accountability. This scrutiny again looks to easy way of balancing he budget on the low hanging fruit of public safety and the Firefighters and the Labor unions. It seems as though attacking the labor unions and pension systems is the solution to all of the Cities problems. Look at the City of Sacramento's recent filing for bankruptcy now creating the discussion and opportunity for revamping the firefighter contracts and pension system.

It is interesting to attend public meetings on public service and when the issues of cutting fire department services arises, firefighters in attendance state the facts of an increased loss of life, more buildings destroyed or damaged and increased numbers of firefighter injuries or deaths. Generally No Citizen speaks out. However, discuss raising taxes to support public safety, you will fill a sports arena with citizens crying for tax relief and public safety be damned – because whatever disaster may befall our community always happens to the next guy and not me. This is wrongheaded.

It appears that our elected and appointed leaders, including our citizens, have an uncanny ability to create a problem, let it fester to epidemic proportions, then panic and collectively demand something be done. Our solution to those issues is to select a committees, fund studies and create a bunch of laws and regulations that punish or law-abiding citizens and do nothing but perpetuate the problem. It has been said that while performing the essential function of government and managing routine problems, the government functions fairly well. Social Security checks get mailed, streets are swept clean, potholes are filled and water appears when you turn on your faucet. What we also see is how government struggles when dealing with unexpected calamities on a local or national scale. Look at Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Oil spill and most recent hurricane Sandi. Government cannot and has not successfully executed solutions to high profile and complex issues that benefit those affected citizens. Our two party Democratic systems, always playing a game of chance with the financial and political outcomes cannot decide on a rational and logical course of action without trying to get one-over on the opposing party. We all suffer from those inefficiencies.

Many public safety employees see unique challenges every day. Firefighters and police officers exercise a great deal of judgment in their daily jobs and provide logical day to day solutions to the increasing burdens of accomplishing those jobs. What public safety lack is the support from our elected leaders and the citizens served. The solution too many of the financial woes is to increase taxes and reduce essential public services to balance the budget instead of looking inwardly and making a concerted effort to change the status quo. We in the fire service also have our own status quo, a proverbial line in the sand attitude and if no one changes, guess what suffers – public safety.

What is needed is courage in leadership at all levels of government to rise to the challenge of the complexity of the situation. We need to look beyond the old tried and true ways of solving problems as what we are doing now is not working. What we are doing today defines the term INSANITY – doing things the same way over and over expecting different results. Guess what: the way we are doing things now is not working.

We need to tap into the creative minds of our fire service leadership and the firefighters to solve these issues. It is also critical that governments tap into the creative nature of our citizens and provide a solution and to broaden our vision of how we create public value for our public services. Innovation occurs when a workforce is engaged, motivated and valued for what they are producing. Too many public organizations fail that test and the result is a government that can't handle the realities of our rapidly changing world. Is it time for privatization of the fire and EMS services?

There are no simple solutions only compound questions and we cannot give up on our quest to improve public safety in our communities. I do not have the pure solution but some suggestions are to take the basic components of problem solving on a mass scale and: identify all of the elements of the problem; be open-minded to changing your perspective on the issues and think out of the box; identify the pros and cons; make lists and re-evaluate them after a few days to see if they are applicable and create an action plan. These action plans need to stretch the consciousness of the citizens and radically rethink the value of public safety and those action plans may actually change the way public safety is funded and delivered. It may also butcher some of the sacred cows so dearly held onto by our own fire service and government leadership.

Hope and wringing your hands is not an option. We need a strong lobbying effort at the highest and lowest level of government, support of your local and national Chief’s Associations, support the IAFF groups and other affiliated organizations and make the strong argument that erosion of public safety is the first step in a long decline of other essential services in our communities and our great nation. We need to do this ourselves as we need to be the masters of our destiny.

By M2 Resource Group, Inc
EMS & Fire Subject Matter Expert Witness; Litigation Support; Psychological Testing & Counseling
Mr. Murphy has been a member of the fire service since 1974 as a career Firefighter/Paramedic and chief officer retiring in 2007 as a Deputy Fire Chief. Currently he is Vice President of M2 Resource Group a professional consulting company and an attorney whose focus is on employment practices liability, employment policy, internal investigations, firefighter health & safety, and consulting on risk management for private and public entities. He is a frequent lecturer at national conferences, author and podcast host on fire service and EMS liabilities and issues.

Copyright M2 Resource Group, Inc

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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