Lookin’ Out for No. 1

National fire service organizations stand up for their dues-paying members

By Nozzlehead
Published Thursday, October 1, 2009 | From the October 2009 Issue of FireRescue

Dear Nozzlehead: Once again the disunity and parochial side of the fire service (career vs. volunteer) rears its ugly head—this time in the form of the fire union rep’s recent testimony to Congress about FIRE Act and SAFER grants.

I take specific exception to the union’s continued insistence that volunteer firefighters are not “professionals” and don’t warrant the same level of treatment as career firefighters. Is it possible they are treated this way because volunteer firefighters aren’t card-carrying, dues-paying members of the union and, therefore, don’t finance the union staff?

I won’t belabor the old debate and fight about “professionalism” other than to say that the union rep’s Congressional testimony smacks of financial self-interest, jealousy and pettiness concerning what “he believes” is the effective distribution of federal grant funds. His belief that career departments deserve more grant money than volunteer departments is self-motivated and ludicrous.

He made no mention of the legitimate and desperate need of poor, rural communities with limited or no tax bases for fire service. His emphasis was on significantly populated and heavy-call-volume areas predominantly serviced by career departments with union members paying his salary. These areas all have huge tax bases, large career departments, modern equipment and developed water-supply infrastructures to significantly assist them in providing effective and safe fire service to the citizens.

What he failed to do was present a united front of fire service “professionals,” all of whom are in need of funding to provide safer and more effective service to all citizens …even rural citizens in poor areas of the country. He failed to accurately reflect the fact that the vast majority of fire service members are volunteers, giving freely of their scarce and valuable time to train and respond to help their neighbors and friends—volunteers who provide professional fire service without pay and, as such, deserve more funding to support better training and to replace older, less safe, out-of-date equipment.

Unfortunately, those facts don’t support the union rep’s belief that big cities and career departments need more grant money than rural areas.

My sincere plea: Re-emphasize that the fire service must present a united front to all politicians, lest we all be ignored and discarded together—until election time rolls around.

Very, Very Voluntary

Dear Voluntary,
Disunity and parochial-ness in OUR American fire service? Say it ain’t so.

First of all, let’s talk about the UNION. To be clear, let’s talk about how firefighter SAFETY and SURVIVAL have always been, and are now more than ever, the No. 1 priority in the North American fire service. And so there’s NO confusion about where I’m coming from, there has been NO other fire service organization in history that has taken the lead and shown the guts on the issues that we all talk about today more than the
International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

The IAFF has been the single most positive influence related to firefighter safety and survival at all levels. And while that takes nothing away from all the fire service organizations that are now deeply involved, committed and making a difference, we can’t forget that the IAFF set the tone. Because of what it has done related to staffing models, health studies and other work, all North American firefighters have benefited. Career. Paid. Poorly paid. Part-time paid. Volunteer. Call. Whatever.

It’s critical to remember that the union is an AFLCIO labor organization, and representing the interests of their dues-paying members is EXACTLY what they’re expected to do. They’re not here to represent the interests of any other fire service group, nor should they be the ones to get everyone else in the fire service to get along. It really is that simple. No hard feelings. No sore attitudes. The union is a LABOR UNION that looks out for LABOR UNION FIREFIGHTERS. Although some may not like it, when that union representative is there, speaking in Washington D.C., he’s speaking for one thing and one thing only—what’s best for career union firefighters.

The union rep made no mention of the “legitimate and desperate need of poor, rural communities with limited or no tax bases for fire service” because THAT IS NOT HIS JOB. It’s not that the IAFF doesn’t like poor, rural volunteer firefighters; it’s just that they’re not there to represent their issues.

I understand your comments, all of them, clearly. But understand that the rep simply repped! That’s the job. That rep from the union was NOT there to rep the American fire service. He did his job by representing his card-carrying members—and the greater good of his members. When you write that he failed to present a “united front” of fire service professionals, all of whom are in need of funding to provide safer, more effective service to all citizens …even rural citizens in poor areas of the country, I understand. I truly do and TOTALLY agree that the IAFF should speak with a united voice; however, it should not be held responsible for speaking on behalf of the other fire service organizations.

So now that it’s clear that an organization is expected to represent their dues-paying members, no matter what that organization is, it may
be worth looking at the organization(s) you belong to and making sure they’re doing as well as they should be doing. Instead of focusing on
what the IAFF is doing that doesn’t support YOUR interests, I think it’s time for you to ask yourself what you’re getting regularly from YOUR
fire service organizations that makes them worth belonging to and that makes you PROUD to belong. Are you PROUD to belong to that group (or groups), and are they doing what’s BEST for their members? If not, when election time comes, THROW THE BUMS OUT. Don’t re-elect those who don’t do what’s best for their members.

So then, when do we act as AMERICA’S FIRE SERVICE, rather than as a career fire service or a volunteer fire service?

There will be issues where various fire service organizations will have to focus exclusively on the needs of their own members. There will also be many times when various fire service organizations must support each other, especially in areas where we have PREVIOUSLY supported each other. Now don’t live in a fantasy world; it won’t always work. But sometimes, it is for the overall good of ALL firefighters, officers and chiefs that we do speak in ONE voice. We do need to do more of that.

So what about the greater good? What about this ONE UNIFIED VOICE OF THE AMERICAN FIRE SERVICE? Should the IAFF, IAFC, NVFC, NFPA, ISFSI, FDSOA and the NFFF, along with all the other good national fire orgs, participate in a “unifying” council of some kind? Why not? What is needed—and we had it years ago—is for the leaders of the various national fire service groups to revisit the old concept of a joint council of fire service organizations. That way, when we all generally agree on something, we can TRULY speak as ONE American fire service. Politicians LOVE that, and we ALL generally win.

Fire organizations representing multiple constituents? It happened recently, when the IAFC and IAFF issued a joint statement regarding the highly inaccurate “firefighting cancer study” by Tri-Data for the National League of Cities. When it’s implied that there’s no connection between firefighting activities and firefighters getting certain types of cancer, a coordinated, educated response is required—and the IAFC and IAFF did just that. Together.

Action like that won’t happen on all issues, and to think it will is unrealistic. Just like people, communities, Congressional districts and fire service organizations, we won’t all agree on stuff, so we elect folks to represent constituents—that’s very American. So no, we won’t ALWAYS agree, but I think we can agree that in some cases, all national fire service organizations speaking as one voice is a good thing. Just ask those duespaying members they represent.

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