Wednesday, December 16, 2009

FIRE DEPARTMENTS AND THE MILITARY

Something has been brewing up in Boston’s fire department that strikes me as connecting to a larger dot, the military.

In January 2009 a large ladder truck returning from a medical assist call lost its brakes on one of the steepest hills in the city (and the city has a few). Unable to use parked cars as crash-barriers to slow it down, the Lieutenant in charge sounded the airhorn as the truck hurtled into a T-shaped intersection at the foot of the hill (thankfully, there was no traffic, though it was the middle of a weekday). The truck rolled across the street and into the first floor of a building on the other side, into a section containing a children’s classroom where a class was in session.

There were mostly minor injuries among the tykes, but the firefighters aboard were all modestly injured and the Lieutenant, himself a father of a family with kids, died.

The investigation of such a highly publicized tragedy fell not to the Fire Department primarily, but to the District Attorney’s office, which has just released its final report. That report reveals a stunning ‘culture’ that pervaded the Department: a) the Maintenance Division was manned by firefighters not trained as or licensed as mechanics; b) these personnel were unfamiliar with manufacturer’s recommendations and service-schedules and frequently violated them; c) these personnel had improperly serviced the brakes of the ladder truck involved.

Worse, d) the firefighter driving the vehicle – classed as a ‘chauffeur’, which means that he was especially responsible for driving and inspecting the vehicle for mechanical integrity – was not trained to do so because the Department had no such requirements in its training program; e) he had well-intentionedly but improperly attempted to fix the problem of brakes when the truck returned from Maintenance and the brakes started to function erratically; f) when the brakes actually went out on the hill that day, he took precisely the wrong actions in an attempt to stop the vehicle.

The Department has taken some corrective measures. It had recently come under the command of a Commissioner hired from “outside” the Department, to replace a ‘local boy’ Commissioner who had come up through the ranks of the Department. This new Commissioner was a former Navy officer, familiar no doubt with the vital responsibility of maintaining the mechanical and operational integrity of the machinery aboard ship.

The Firefighter’s Union has been emphasizing its shock, shock at such a culture – although the very practice of hiring union firefighters unqualified for serious mechanical work had been going on since time immemorial and continuously placed the front-line firefighters (also union members) in the type of danger that finally revealed itself fatally that January day.

Conceivably, the Union’s hostile attitude to the long-serving Mayor’s re-election prompted the hiring of a Commissioner from the “outside” in the first place.

Wheels within wheels (and clearly no brakes, as it were).

Fire departments have been surrounded with a very special “heroic” aura since 9-11 and the stupefying loss of hundreds of New York firefighters (and police and EMS personnel) when the Twin Towers collapsed. That disaster itself is a story – not fully appreciated by the public – of organizational inertia that continued long-standing and dangerous policies that, for example, sent firefighters into danger with weak and intermittently-operating radios and did not allow the Police (advised by their helicopter crews) to inform the Fire command that from the air it was clear that the towers were starting to give serious indication of collapsing.

Incidentally, the Department lost dozens of pieces of apparatus that had been scattered right around the base of the two towers – the City lost more front-line apparatus that day than 98% of American cities own in toto, in addition to numerous ambulances and support vehicles, as well as a number of police vehicles. As with so much of the story, the repair and replacement of that apparatus was spun as another instance of “heroic” efforts: in this case by the FDNY’s extensive and qualified Maintenance and Repair Division to get salvageable apparatus repaired and the wrecked apparatus replaced with reserve and hastily purchased new pieces – and legitimately so.

More darkly, it was considered insensitive and inappropriate to note that at least one piece of early-arriving apparatus, wrecked and its crew among the dead, was filled with neatly folded piles of expensive clothes from a boutique store on the ground-level mall of one of the towers. Department and union publicists refused to discuss the clear possibility that some firefighter(s) had engaged in a bit of looting; the story put forth was that the merchandise had been blown into the cab of the truck, neatly and still piled as in the store, by the collapsing force of the tower’s implosion. Several years later, a Department in metro Boston threatened to boycott a book-signing by an author who discussed this incident in a book – and the national-chain bookstore (since gone out of business) caved to the threats.

This was only partly attributable to the then-Mayor’s (Rudolph Giuliani) political clout. The unions themselves – nationally connected – were active suppressors in their own right.

Why bring this up?

First let me say that the job of a firefighter is about as close to a war-fighting responsibility as civilian life offers. If Douglas MacArthur’s philosophy of soldiering – pronounced in his refusal to the commute the war-crimes death sentence of Japanese General Yamashita – is correct, then firefighters do indeed “defend the defenseless”. * Fire is indeed an ‘evil’ entity when it gets out of human control and burns where it shouldn’t burn. And firefighters who strive to discharge their responsibilities competently and with integrity are indeed heroic, whether at any given moment they are confronted with flames and trapped people or are simply waging the long struggle – perennial in and among humans – to do an important job to the best of their ability.

Fire gives no quarter and will voraciously destroy everything and everyone in its path. It cannot be ‘spun’ or ‘re-imagined’ – failure to stop it brings huge and often lethal consequences. In that sense, it is an ‘enemy’ against whom unending and unselfish exertions, competent as well as well-intentioned, must be deployed immediately.

Back to the Boston matter.

You can perhaps see how an ‘organizational culture’ that has pervaded an entire large fire department organization can undermine – and nullify – the best efforts of individual members of the force. That Lieutenant was probably no stranger to the deficits of the Maintenance Division: he had lived with it his entire professional life, and he knew that there was only so much one officer could do out there on the front-lines where – literally – the rubber meets the road. And in general, after a while, in the face of such interlocking and well-established and long-espoused deficits in higher-command integrity, such capable front-line officers must trade-off so many of their ideals that the very integrity of their duties and the ability to perform their tasks are undermined. Officers at the higher levels of Command must demonstrate the willingness to fix things that ‘the powers that be’ might prefer to remain un-fixed, and they have to risk their own promotion or even careers to do it.

Nor can unions escape responsibility. There is an immutable contradiction in ‘union’ work that takes an especially dangerous form in public civil service work and especially in Emergency Services: is such work an ‘employment opportunity’ or a ‘mission-driven’ privilege? The incompetent or physically incapable firefighter, once hired, perhaps with ‘political clout’ in either the old ‘patronage and connections’ form or in the newer but just as noxiously effective ‘affirmative action’ form (where the government becomes, in effect, the ‘ultimate political connection’ and the ultimate ‘City Hall’), poses a threat to all firefighters as well as to all of the public.

This is not an either-or, yes-or-no type of thing. I am not saying that municipal government or unions must – or can – eliminate any and all obstructions to the pure achievement of ‘the mission’. Government cannot ever govern like Solomon all the time (which is why the Founders fenced it in so carefully). Unions cannot allow members with families to lose their jobs for any but the most clear and urgent reasons.

But to walk a tight-rope like this requires constant care and self-vigilance; it’s a high-wire act from hell, as the circus people would put it. And it requires no ‘business as usual’ or ‘that’s the way things are around here’ or the ‘everything around here is like that’ approach by any level of the organization, from the highest to the lowest.

Otherwise, people are going to get killed. And people whose lives you as a command officer are responsible for.

Now, this may seem clear enough when you think of an entity as comprehensible or at least as observable as your local municipality.

But the same dynamics work for, say, the monster-sized and not-so-visible government organizations like, say, the military.

It’s not enough to surround the organization – even in your own mind – with the hazy golden glow of ‘patriotism’ and ‘heroism’ and leave it at that. The People are expected to control their government – like a Board of Directors or Board of Overseers should do.

It has always seemed to me that one failure of the Greatest Generation – as it is now popularly called – was that, having seen first-hand how FUBAR** things can get, it did not take a more skeptical look at Vietnam as it was developing into a major conflagration. Vietnam ignited as that Generation was in its middle-aged prime. But for far too many, it became an opportunity to live in a gauzy aura of their own past youthful salad days rather than turn an experienced and gimlet eye on what the military and Beltway at the highest levels were trying to pull off.


Long before Ronald Reagan worked his time-travelling magical illusions, far too much of that Greatest Generation simply figured that it was 1941 all over again and so Vietnam was just another chance to show your stuff against an evil enemy of titanic proportions and the young generation of the 1960s should be as proud and ready to answer the call as their predecessors did in their own now-gone youth.

And the band played on.

Now, in yet another generation, the country is at war(s). Nothing about the enemy is as clear-cut as it was in 1941, and even if ‘terrorism’ constitutes a massive threat, the ‘terrorists’ are not a nation or a national military against which the great military-machine of the USA can be usefully deployed in the time-honored way.

Bush, following Reagan, tried to re-live the era of 1941-45 – now deceptively swathed in the golden aura of selective memory – rather than do the monstrously hard work of developing a new national strategy to deal with so different a threat. But hey – when all you have is a hammer, then everything you see is a nail, and when all you have (or choose to have) is a modern military, then everything you see is going to be an opportunity for war.

This, I think, was the great existential failure of the US government in the period after 1960, when the world had recovered sufficiently from the concussion that stunned it from 1939-1945 and was beginning, once again, to present numerous, complex, highly active variables that were changing the international equation bigtime.

Instead, the Beltway let itself slide into the old script, more to shield itself from the hard and mature work of representative and responsible government than to shape and re-shape America’s comprehensive strategy for dealing with a planet that was recovering not only its vitality, but its fractious complexity as well.

And here We are.

I have read Obama’s West Point and Nobel speeches and they prompt some thoughts that I will Post on this week. But whether or not the Southwest Asia wars do or do not present the same type of challenge that Vietnam presented (they certainly don’t present the same type as presented by the Third Reich and Imperial Japan), I sense wayyyyy too many similarities between how the Beltway dealt with Vietnam and how the Beltway is trying to deal with the Southwest Asia challenges.

And that’s a type of reminiscence that anybody of mature years can do without.

NOTES

*This is not at all meant to impugn or minimize the task of – say – police officers. But police officers cannot so easily – or should not so easily – imagine themselves to be in a “war”, since criminals are still Citizens and retain Constitutional protections; the militarization of police, including the “war” mindset, cannot but endanger the integrity of Constitutional safeguards and the very carefully drawn boundaries around government police powers deliberately inserted by the Framers into the Constitutional framework and ethos.

The tendency in recent decades to imagine the ‘criminals’ as an alien enemy force – like the ‘Indians’ against the ‘settlers’ in the era of frontier wars, with the police functioning as ‘the cavalry’ – and the ‘law-abiding’ public as ‘victims’ and ‘helpless innocents’ results, clearly, in the police waging ‘war’ on Citizens (although they are suspected of and perhaps actually engaged in criminal activity). If this sounds odd to you, then it’s an indicator of just how far things have deteriorated in this country when it comes to a genuine comprehension of the Constitutional vision and its inalterable dynamics.

And as I always point out, this ‘militarization’ has been supported not only by the law-and-order Right, but by the purportedly victim-avenging Left.

Police officers trying to conscientiously do their job within the parameters of the Constitution (State, if not also national) that they have sworn to uphold and defend, deserve the highest respect.

**World War 2 enlisted soldier term: Frakked Up Beyond All Recognition (you should substitute that F-word).

ADDENDUM

If I haven't made it clear enough, let me say it here: Upon all who have lost their lives in the line of duty - emergency service or military - be much peace.

ADDENDUM 2

On 12/26/09 the news paper reports that the firefighter’s Union has (finally) approved the City’s hiring of licensed mechanics instead of unlicensed firefighters to service the fire apparatus fleet. This represents, the article reports, the first successful agreement between the Union and the City in 8 years.

Which says a great deal about the Union’s role in causing this mess to begin with: clearly the Union not only knew but insisted upon the hiring of incompetent union members for so vital a job – which on its very face was a policy that endangered the public and other Union members (the firefighters who actually had to operate the vehicles in daily operations).

As if that weren’t bad enough, it is reported that the Union’s acceptance of the licensing requirement came at a price. Rather than simply acknowledge and accept the licensing requirement on the basis of its utter and vital importance for the safety of the public and its own membership, the Union insisted (and apparently has all of this past year, since the accident in January of 2009) that the City drop its disciplinary (and possible court action) against all firefighters who have been accused of abusing sick leave (and it appears that such a practice was rife in the Department for years).

In addition, in a bit of vague but tantalizing half-reporting, the article reports that as part of its price for withdrawing opposition to the hiring of licensed mechanics, the Union also required the City to “keep several dozen posts safe from budget cuts”. Call me what you will, but I’m going to imagine that at least some of those jobs are for firefighters who were ‘maintaining’ and ‘servicing’ the apparatus without either mechanical competence or license. In fact, for all anybody knows, those firefighters will still be on the roster as employed at the Maintenance Division – though what gainful services they will provide in return for their pay and benefits is anybody’s guess.

I’d also note that “8 years” takes everyone back to the era just after 9-11, when all firefighters were imbued with the heroic aura of the catastrophic losses incurred by FDNY when the Twin Towers collapsed. There is much to be said for respecting the efforts of individual and front-line personnel while also keeping an even more gimlet eye on the organizational honchos who form the bureaucracy that oversees them.

All of this offers some sage and serious lessons for Citizens: what you can see unfolding with at least some clarity on your local municipal stage, is a reasonably solid indicator of what goes in among the bureaucrats in the much larger organizations that administer the lives of the little-guy ‘heroes’ who make things work in the day-to-day, in the teeth of all the worst challenges that their profession presents.

Support the troops and honor the heroic, but don’t take your eyes off the bureaucracies. Not even for a minute.

And as if he imagines that the public has the memory of a clam, the Union boss - recently seen blaming the City for the accident and for the death of one of its heroic members in every public news venue he could show up on - was unavailable for comment today. Which day, by the by, is the day after Christmas and a Saturday; do these PR people and bureaucrats think that every Citizen is an imbecile?

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