The Politics of “First Responders”

In March 2017, there was a blog on this site which posed the question as to whether it was time to cut back on Fire Services, who despite a diminishing need for their services,  were in fact expanding in terms of manpower, equipment, and general presence.

The self-justifications for the fire services expansion all hinged on their incursion into medical calls, fanned by the publicity burning opioid crisis. It was the continuing perpetuation of the somewhat mythical life saver dynamic, they being the foremost and therefore indispensable “first responders” that made up the Group of Three.

What stirred this pot which highlighted the decreasing need, was the review in Ontario of the Fraser Research Report, which reviewed Fire Services in Ontario for the period of 1997-2012.  It discovered that during this time period in Ontario the number of firefighters increased by 36.3% while fires (including autos) had decreased in the same period by 41.4%.  In British Columbia in this same time period the number of firefighters had increased by 43.8%.

The hourly wages for firefighters followed suit, in Ontario, their wages went up 47.8% in this same time period, whereas price levels only increased by 34.6%.

All of this growth in both wages and infrastructure, while at the same time there has been a phenomenal decline in the need for “fire” services. There are some estimates that say as little as 5% of the fire department calls now relate to actual fires.

Clearly, this should call for most persons aware of ever dwindling municipal budgets and ever increasing tax levels, that maybe one could do away with some of the equipment, halls and personnel involved in firefighting. Although Ontario did cut back some of their services, most areas including British Columbia seem oblivious to the seemingly obvious.

So how is it that governments, municipal counsels, and the governing bodies seem to have missed this obvious decline in the need for fire services?  In searching for explanations one finds a masterful blend of self-promotion, coupled with an outright expansion of their roles outside of their intended mandate, which this blog covered previously.

Now it would seem that we need to add another component, a political component.

But we need to review how we got this new level.

With subtle flourish even the modern day lexicon has been transformed. No longer, police, fire and ambulance. Now, all are “first responders”.  Their’s is the only one group who has a vested interest as being on par with the others, both in terms of how they are viewed, how they are paid, and the significance of the role they play.

To their credit the firefighters early on figured out that they needed to expand their roles, they need to aggressively move into other mandates, areas where they were not before. In terms of mandate, of course the only place for them to go was to cross-over into the ambulance and police services.

They even made the subtle name change from Fire Department, to Fire and Rescue Services as they jumped headlong into car accidents and medical calls and they have been remarkably successful. They point out in somewhat boastful tones that they estimate 70% of their calls are now medical, as they “rescue” opioid overdoses, or respond to heart attacks. This is true, even though they do not and can not provide the same level of service as the paramedics.

Even their “rescue” capabilities, has become more specialized, now under the umbrella of “Technical rescue”.  ‘Auto extraction’, marine, or bridge rescue components are now separate tranches, in an attempt to be more expansive and all inclusive.  They have also  become, through little debate, the Hazardous Material experts.

Why? Their very employment and infrastructure survival depends on a sleight of hand, the general public needs to believe that they are the “first responders” of record. They need to convince you that they are the white hats, always there, always the first on scene. They are the life savers which we can not do without.

In B.C. there was a recent budget increase for paramedics of $31million.

The firefighters had the audacity to actually complain that it had cut into their calls for service. They justified their complaint saying that they were often first and more capable of getting to a scene “quicker”. The argument of getting there first by the way, is a constantly repeated theme. The obvious counter argument would be if there were more paramedics on the road, people more qualified, than their ability to get there first becomes moot.

The fire departments are unflagging in their efforts. Vancouver Fire Department and “Rescue Services” prior to the municipal elections were asking for an additional 21 fire personnel. They justify this of course on the need  to respond to 6200 opioid calls.

All of the above has been obvious for quite some time but what caught one’s eye during these same elections in the Lower Mainland was a somewhat new twist. It would appear that the firefighters are now honing their political voice, enhancing their political efforts, and are now becoming an active political force, a true definition of a self-interest group.

No more was this more obvious than in the City of  Burnaby, who have now elected an independent mayor, a former firefighter, Mike Hurley in an upset victory over Derek Corrigan.

Burnaby is an interesting case study.

All 281 firefighters in Burnaby belong to the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 323.

If one visits their website, they make no mistake as to what they believe: “When it comes to Political Action, we support those that support us” – May 17, 2014.

It is equally clear from their website that the building block from which any political action will flow is the charities. Golf tournaments, city fairs, parades, and charitable balls dominate their photos and exclamations of fealty to the community.

In recent years the Burnaby firefighters came into the news on a couple of occasions, one when Burnaby firefighter Nick Elmes and a couple of others formed the Florian Knights, who met with and were sanctioned to wear their “colours” by the Hells Angels. They used to ride to work showing their “colours” before management stepped in.

Then there was Bryan Kirk, a 36 year firefighter who decided to retire after being confronted on his support of “Camp Cloud” which was the campsite put up by Indigenous protestors at the site of the Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby. The camp was eventually taken down, via court injunction by the Burnaby RCMP, but Kirk supported the protestors and went on record saying “I’m more inclined to put out the Olympic torch then put out a First Nation ceremonial fire”.  (Newly elected Hurley is also on record, aligning with Kirk, saying that he supports no pipeline.)

As one watched the celebrations at the Hurley election campaign, which was held at the Firefighters Public House in Burnaby, where a smiling Hurley was surrounded by Firefighters in similar styled t-shirts as they celebrated one of their own being elected. One could guess that a serious look at the monies being spent on the firefighters in a time when municipal budgets are under crises will not occur in Burnaby, at least while under the faithful guidance of Mr. Hurley.

This was not the only example.

In Langley the Langley Township Fire Department IAFF Local 4550 were out endorsing certain candidates.

In Surrey, the Surrey Firefighters endorsed Tom Gill for mayor (who lost to McCallum). Already on counsel in Surrey was the former firefighter Mike Starchuk, who was a firefighter for 32 years, and still headed up one of their Charitable foundations.

In 2014 Surrey First party raised $1.7 million in support of Linda Hepner– one of the biggest donors, if not the biggest were the Surrey Firefighters who donated $32, 564. 01.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that other “first responders” have become active in politics. Former police officers have taken roles as counsellors on various cities and townships, and one ex-RCMP member is now mayor of Pitt Meadows.

But this firefighter involvement seems different. It seems more organized, more overt, with an exposed agenda. A concerted effort to get their candidate elected.

Many will argue that they are members of the public, they too therefore have a right to get involved in the politics of the day. That is true and there are special interest groups who put forward candidates, and organize to support those candidates. But this seems somehow different.

One needs to ask, do fire, police and medical personnel hold a special role in our society? Clearly their mandates enter into our lives in different ways than other members of the general public. Are they in a position of undue influence? Do they have access to the media which is not available on a regular basis to the members of the general public?  Should or could it be perceived that there is a political component to the service provided by “first responders”? Police are held back from overt political support by a pressing need to be neutral in terms of the laws and its applications. Should medical and fire service be bound by any kind of neutrality?

It is the slippery slope of mixing politics with your role, especially one that is specifically mandated to serve the public. One should be equally alarmed at the Chiefs of Police supporting a particular party, or ambulance attendants supporting a particular pro-union politician.

One can not help but feel that the firefighter new found interest in municipal politics is also being influenced by the need to get a friendly face on the inside. One who will not question the need for greater and greater expansion, who will not look at the statistics, one who will not worry about unneeded financial expenditures. Is there a faint taint on the Burnaby election?

Maybe we need to go back to “police, fire or ambulance?” which is the first question still asked by 911 operators. Maybe the three services should be examined as separate entities, both in terms of budget and mandate, not as a single group of “first responders”. Taxpayers need to pay attention.

But hey, it’s the Xmas season, and the firefighters are busy setting up the Bright Nights Xmas Train in Stanley Park, where a portion of the proceeds goes to the BC Professional Fire Fighters Burn Fund. The media will be fawning over the children and the sponsoring firefighters on every news channel and after all who could argue with the cause. It’s brilliant and not just because of the 3,000 lights.

It used to be beefcake calendars, it’s much more subtle now, but the impression remains the same.

Photo Courtesy of  Pete at Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved

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