Friday, January 04, 2008

Getting the Blame Game Wrong, As Usual

And What Constitutes Getting It Right, Anyway?

Whoo. If you read the News Minus yesterday, a house just outside the Steese Fire Department 's fire service area burned yesterday.

"Fire consumes cabin yards outside district" reads the headline. And one would think, based on the following story, that the department is just a bunch of callous, rule-bound, uncaring, un-Alaskan jerks.

The paper chose to run the story with the following quote in the third paragraph from the angry homeowner:
“I always loved the fact that there are a lot of good people in Fairbanks, but this was wrong,” homeowner Ace Callaway told the newspaper. “We’re all supposed to be neighbors. It’s just very disheartening.”
Of course, the ADN's Newsreader picked up the story and ran a link on the front page of the online edition that stated "Firefighters turn back; home burns." I read the 'Comments' section that followed and it was filled with a shitstorm of uninformed comments blasting the fire department and wishing that bad things would befall its members. A large portion of the entire thread is filled with the same angry, potshot discourse that is common on the ADN comment section (and to be fair) most others like it.

The problem is, most of these people were operating without a few crucial facts that ought to have made the original story:

1) The Steese Fire Department only turned around after finding out that there was an 'all clear' on the structure, meaning that they had been informed that no one was inside. 'Life safety' is a priority with all departments and even if a building is outside the service area, they would have continued on if they were informed that there was a person inside or there was uncertainty as to the all clear.
2) The staff of the fire department can not choose respond to a fire outside the service area. It isn't a judgement call. Period. See #1. If a life is at risk, they go. A few posters have said that they would have continued on had the fire been at a department member's house. No, actually, they wouldn't. According to one of the comments on the story, a Steese area firefighter's home burned down last year in a similar situation.

And with no context provided in the original story in the FDNM, people continue to pile on the good folks at Steese, the overwhelming majority of whom are volunteers giving thousands of hours in service, training and responding every year. Not to mention risking their lives regularly.

The additional context? People continue to build farther and farther out from the city of Fairbanks itself. They continue to buy lots and build homes outside of fire service areas. This is not a great big secret. The positive for them? They don't pay for fire service. The negative? They don't get it except, well, see #1 and #2 above. This is not a problem that is going away, it is a problem that will grow as we sprawl further and further out. Crapping on the fire departments will not change this.

With limited resources (human and equipment) can a fire department commit what it has to fighting a fire outside the service area and thereby not have anything available should a fire call come from those within its area? Existing policy says 'no.' So take it up with the borough.

What would have happened had the Steese folks ignored borough policy and committed its people to that fire and a bad motor vehicle accident had happened in their service area? Emergencies don't stop occurring, nor do they go on hold until the previous call is over. Guess what? Firefighters respond to car wrecks - what if extrication was needed? Sure, mutual aid exists, but other fire departments can only send what they don't have committed in their own district. And since they are located elsewhere, it takes them longer to get there.

The real story is that resources are tight already here in the Squarebanks area and across the United States (where the majority of communities are protected by volunteer departments.) Most areas have a hard time keeping volunteers and I'm not just talking about here in Alaska. Departments are stretched thin. We're asking more and more of them every year. The role of a firefighter has changed dramatically in the last few decades - no more just 'put the wet stuff on the red stuff.'

Volunteering is not just the 100 plus hours of training to get certified as a Firefighter I - it's pulling a certain number of shifts per month, raising money for charities, volunteering at community events, trying to keep up with physical conditioning and attending training regularly. It's rolling out of bed at 4 a.m. when the pager goes off and it is 40 below outside. It is being witness to some tragic stuff. It's finding time for all that on top of your full time day job and family responsibilities and the rest of your life.

People have a right to buy and build homes outside service areas. (And I should point out that EMS service extends farther than fire service areas. ) They have a right to opt out. But they shouldn't take cheap shots at the men and women who work so hard for their neighbors without expecting pay.


Philip Munger said...

Excellent, Cabin Dweller! Local knowledge is valuable when learning about something like this.

As a former firefighter, EMT-II, volunteer fire chief, I know what you mean. It is bad enough after putting out a property fire and having people who stood around watching whine about what you did or didn't do that they don't like, but to have people from Anchorage come up with those ridiculous comments is inane. But they're mostly from Anchorage, where everybody loves to put down Fairbanks, anyway.

Still, a sad story. Glad nobody was hurt.

Deirdre Helfferich said...


Fire service district residents choose how much to tax themselves to support their local fire districts. People living in an area can also choose to create their own districts. It's not just a matter of pleading with the borough for coverage. An area can choose to serve itself. You don't even need the borough to create a phone tree/bucket brigade, and being outside the borough means (ta dah) you don't have to mess with borough beauracracy (I can never spell that word) to do so.

Megan said...

Thank you for this post. The News-Miner article made me mad/frustrated, too... But not because the volunteers turned away. The French say, "You can't have your omelet and the egg." So true.

Theresa said...

Wow. This is well-written. Thanks for filling in some of the gaps. Hopefully, someone will learn something from this episode.

CabinDweller said...

Yeah, Phil, I think after reading some of the stuff online that people don't understand the situation in the Fairbanks area.

Okay, you folks unfortunate enough to live elsewhere, a couple of additional bits of context:

1) Many, many homes are built outside existing fire service areas.
2) So, it is not a simple matter of calling the right department or 'the other' department. There isn't one. So when a fire service area for one department ends, you don't necessarily enter another one.
3)In such places, the only fire protection is Forestry. They don't do structural fires. They are the dudes/dudettes with fedcos and pulaskis running around putting out wildfires. Needless to say, that is not a problem here in the winter.
4)So, while the AP story on the Fox fire might say Fairbanks, it is not within the city limits.
5) Nor is Fox a city, or an incorporated anything. It is a place, which thankfully, has one really Alaskan roadhouse and one brew pub within spitting distance of each other. And a liquor store and gas station, right next to the previous two.
6)And an increasing number of houses.