Fire fighter myths are used by unions to fool taxpayers into spending every last dime on Contra Costa fire districts that are fundamentally bankrupt. There are nine fire districts in the county and most are suffering from pension, benefit, and health care extravagance; although they will tell you the problem is a reduction in property tax revenue due to the “great recession.”
The reduction in property tax revenue is righting itself as the economy recovers, but the financial health of spendthrift fire districts financial situation continue to deteriorate as pension and retiree health care costs skyrocket over the next five year and beyond.
How does one know if pensions are the problem with fire district financing? That’s easy…
- Read the information in newspapers or in various industry and Fire District reports or go to a town hall meeting on Fire District issues and never see the word pension on any PowerPoint presentation.
- Read Tom Barnidge’s columns in the Times on Fire District finance issues and never see the word pension mentioned as the problem or part of the solution.
- Talk to a Fire District Board member and never hear the word pension.
- Read the County’s consultant study on fixing ConFire’s financial situation and never see the word pension.
In other words, it is the eight hundred pound gorilla in the room that, for various reasons, no one wants to acknowledge or even whisper the word.
So as this discussion intensifies it is a good time to reflect on a few basics, a few “myths” about fire services as we can now see them.
This week I will discuss two of those fire fighter myths unions and their politicians will trot out to justify their supposed indispensable extravagant expense.
The first of fire fighter myths is that firefighters must retire early as they face dangerous working conditions. Or, as one spouse yelled out at a recent town hall meeting on fire services in her city: “Every time my husband leaves for work, I don’t know if I will see him alive again.” The same, I would like to point out, could be said for many occupations.
Fire fighter myths, #1: Fire Fighting is the Most Dangerous Job
In 2012 the Bureau of Labor Statistics measured the “Most dangerous Jobs in America; firefighters did not make the top 15 list. Here is a list of the top most dangerous jobs as compiled by the Bureau:
The list was compiled nationwide; each industry was measured by the number of deaths per one thousand workers. As you can see from the list, driving is the most dangerous activity workers can engage in. Forty-one percent of all fatal accidents occur in transportation related incidents; 58% of these deaths occur on highways. There is a reason salesmen die at a greater rate than most professions.
The second highest cause of worker deaths is “assaults and violent acts”; there were 767 workers killed in 2012 by violence; 463 homicides and 225 suicides.
“Slips, falls, and trips” killed 668 workers during the year and 509 workers were fatally injured after being struck by equipment or objects on the job.
This does not mean in anyway, that fighting fires is not dangerous. But it does show that we have ameliorated the danger through work protocols and rules that protect the worker; for example, in East Contra Costa, five fighters must be at the scene before two—always two-can—enter a burning structure. We also provide fire fighters with the tools and equipment necessary to make their jobs dangerous. And, there is one more critical reason the fire fighters job is less dangerous as we will see in myth number two.
Fire fighter myths, #2: Fire Fighters number one job is fighting fires
Surprisingly, standard fire fighter myths contend that fire fighters spend most of their waking hours fighting fires. This was once true, but hardly the case these days.
Today’s Contra Costa Fire fighters spend most of their day answering Advanced or Basic medical calls.
The County Board of Supervisors recently verified this information with a consulting study by Fitch and Associates. The $185,000 study was conducted to arrive at alternatives to current operating procedures that could reverse Confire’s deteriorating financial condition.
Although the study appears to define operation issues well and offers three possible scenarios for future operation, it provided no insight in solving the District’s financial situation. The report simply plays around the edges of the financial collapse.
The Fitch study concluded that 78% of calls and 56% of fire fighter time away from the stations were for medical assistance, not fires.
The world has changed, the world of fire fighting has changed significantly. With new construction materials and techniques, there are fewer fires than ever before. From reviewing operations reports from various fire districts in the county, it appears there are less than 2 fires per day across all districts in the county combined.
Fire Districts, Dan Borenstein of the Times reports, “have morphed from fighting blazes to providing emergency medical services.”
Vince Wells President of Local 1230 of the United Professional Fire Fighters of Contra Costa County would remind us, and has reminded the County Board of Supervisors, that “all fires are not the same” and that fighting the Mt. Diablo fire is different from fighting a car fire.
But the question remains: can the public afford to let fire fighters retire at age 50, often the peak of their career, and be compensated for approximately 30 years at 90% or more of their pay? If so, why? And can we afford to continue with the mix of personnel, fire trucks and other equipment currently in use to provide the services delivered today?
When looking at the facts and numbers, the answer appears to be no to both questions. Public due diligence must ignore fire fighter myths and work with reality.