s
s
Sections
You've read 3 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 6 of 10 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

Today’s professional firefighters are trained to respond to all kinds of emergencies — a big difference from their predecessors 25 years ago.

Emergency medical response, building collapse/search and rescue, high angle rescue, hazardous materials incidents, automobile accidents, swift water rescue, wildland firefighting, domestic terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and active shooter incidents are many of the duties performed by firefighters. And yes, they still fight fires. In 2013, more than 1 million fires were reported with lives saved in the process.

Some attention seekers have recently quibbled with the term ‘firefighter,” including Fred S. McChesney (“Too many firefighters?” Sunday) a former Big Tobacco lobbyist and economist-for-hire turned University of Miami professor, whose opinion piece was published by the Washington Post.

For an academic, McChesney makes a pretty thin argument, and many of his statements are simply untrue. A point-by-point take down of McChesney’s column would be voluminous and simplistic. So we will limit our rebuttal to a few key points.

First, we agree that the International Association of Fire Fighters is a powerful union. And we do not apologize for advocating that firefighters deserve to earn a good living for the risks they take in the performance of their job on behalf of their communities and country.

We also agree that fires across the United States are decreasing. That is occurring for a number of reasons. One big one is the work of firefighters in the community on fire prevention activities, such as fire safety inspections and public education.

And while firefighters are performing these duties, the IAFF and its affiliates are working at the federal, state and local levels to strengthen public safety through better building construction codes, promoting the use of non-toxic flame retardants and improving sprinkler and smoke detector laws that are credited with the decrease in fires and fire-related injuries and deaths.

Recent studies by the National Institute of Standards and Technology examining response to high-rise and residential structure fires show that the only effective way to limit fire spread and minimize loss of life and property is by ensuring the right number of trained firefighters arrive on the scene quickly with the right equipment. In addition, a powerful study by Arizona State University shows cities that strive to adequately staff their departments with career firefighters are also lessening property loss and fire-related injuries and death. The study showed that in a three-month period from June 1 to Aug. 12, 2012, response to fires by an adequately staffed Phoenix Fire Department saved an estimated 2,300 jobs and $10.6 million in adjusted state tax revenues.

The professor also misleads his audience by stating that most communities have separate ambulance services, allowing readers to believe that fire departments are just duplicating work. Yet, in an overwhelming majority of communities in the United States, emergency medical care and transport are provided by career fire departments with firefighters who maintain basic and advanced life support certifications.

This system works well because fire stations are set up throughout each community to respond quickly. And for an elderly person in cardiac arrest or a child with head trauma and bleeding in a car accident, having a trained firefighter there to administer CPR or to pry the child out of the car with the Jaws of Life is critical.

McChesney also gets it completely wrong that the IAFF objects to “merged” fire and EMS services. In fact, the IAFF has embraced and led the way at the national level for fire-based EMS service because of the efficiencies of the system. In the late 1980s, roughly 20 percent of communities across the United States were utilizing the fire-based EMS model. Through the steadfastness of the IAFF over the years, that number now stands at more than 80 percent.

And McChesney glosses over the fact that the times and needs of communities have changed. The changes have been dramatic and significant, and so has the appropriate training and level of service provided by career fire departments. The need for reliable, efficient and effective all-hazards response can clearly be seen in dramatic events such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo. and Baltimore, and recent flooding, tornadoes and wildfires across the West. Firefighters have effectively evolved into specialized multi-role responders, requiring specialized training to meet the needs of citizens when they are at their most vulnerable. And again, because of the strategic placement of fire stations in communities, firefighters meet those needs effectively.

The fast-burning nature of wildland fires would make it impossible to protect homes effectively where tens of thousands of homes have sprouted up in areas we now call the Wildland Urban Interface.

Finally, McChesney launches into his argument that “municipalities that have stuck with the volunteer model got it right.” He goes on to say, “Protecting a sizable city with a volunteer force is possible,” yet he does allow that, “Sheer population size may necessitate a core group of full-timers.” He offers no facts to back up that crazy talk. He simply justifies it by saying it worked for George Washington and it worked in the 1800s and early 20th century. But then he goes on to write that the most deadly fires occurred in those eras. So if the most deadly and costly fires occurred when the country was primarily using an all-volunteer firefighting force, why is it a good idea to go back to that again?

For elected officials charged with making their community safe, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for providing optimum public safety. It is the job of every community to determine the level of emergency response services it should provide its citizens, using the scientific and academic studies n establishing community risk levels that are available today.

We can’t predict if some elected leader somewhere will look at McChesney’s ill-logic and silly conclusions and decide it’s worth a consideration, but we can say that if elected leaders take a serious approach to risk assessment, they will not reach a conclusion that looks anything like McChesney’s.

Harold Schaitberger is general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters based in Washington, D.C.