It's Business: National fire service organizations stand up for their dues-paying members
Editor's Note: An abbreviated version of Nozzlehead's response to this letter appeared in the October issue of FireRescue magazine.
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 do not warrant the same level of treatment as career firefighters. Is it possible they are treated this way because volunteer firefighters are not card-carrying, dues-paying members of the union and, therefore, do not 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fire service without pay and, as such, deserve more funding to support better training and to replace older, less safe, out-of-date equipment.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 do not support the union rep’s belief that big cities and career departments need more grant money than rural areas.
Finally, I will say that I am glad the union does not represent me and the poor, rural, volunteer departments with that kind of illogical and parochial union interest.
Lest you think that I am a tunnel-visioned volunteer firefighter, I must tell you that my father, grandfather, great uncle and many of my very best friends are/were all career firefighters. Like my volunteer firefighter friends, they are all consummate professionals and the finest people I have ever known.
My sincere plea to you is that you 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
Disunity and parochial-ness in OUR American fire service? Say it ain’t so. Career vs. volunteer? Or is it volunteer vs. career? Or is it officers vs. firefighters or firefighters vs. officers? Maybe it’s fire instructors vs. safety officers? Or maybe fire chiefs vs. volunteers who sometimes work part-time as career firefighters? Perhaps it’s career firefighters who volunteer when they are off-duty and that really pisses off those career firefighters who don’t? Maybe it’s career firefighters who are not union members? Maybe it’s career union firefighters who work as non-union laborers (such as plumbers, electricians)? Maybe it’s volunteers who simply just don’t like career firefighters? Maybe it’s the women’s fire group, the Hispanic fire group or the African-American fire group? Maybe it's the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) firefighters group? Can you think of any other groups within our “family” that are a unified part of our disunity? Hmmm … maybe there isn’t one “American fire service” after all.
First of all, let’s talk about the UNION. To be clear, let’s talk about how firefighter SAFETY and SURVIVAL has always been, and is now more than ever, the No. 1 priority in the North American fire service. And so there is 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 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, the IAFF set the tone. And because of what they have done related to staffing models, health studies and related work, all North American firefighters have benefited from the work of the IAFF. Career. Paid. Poorly paid. Part-time paid. Volunteer. Call. Whatever.
It’s critical to remember that the union is an AFL-CIO labor organization, and representing the interests of their dues-paying members is EXACTLY what they are expected to do. They are not here to represent the interests of any other fire service group and 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.
Typically, our fire service organizations act like those they represent. How do you WANT them to act? Should the black firefighters’ organization be focused on the issues of red-headed white firefighters? I don’t think so. That’s not who they represent. Should the NVFC be concerned about pay issues or keeping jobs for IAFF members? Nope, that is NOT what they are there for. And should the IAFF be worried about poor, rural, volunteer firefighters and departments? No. It’s simple business.
You’re frustrated with the fact that 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; but THAT IS NOT HIS JOB. It’s not that the IAFF doesn’t like poor, rural volunteer firefighters; it’s just that they are not there to represent volunteer issues. Members pay dues to organizations such as the IAFF, the IAFC, the NVFC, the NFPA, the ISFSI, the FDSOA, and we EXPECT them to represent the greater good of the membership—generally not others. And that is always a subject of interest: What is the greater good of their members? Kind of like your member of Congress representing EVERY interest in your community? It can’t be done. So they have to do what benefits the majority and contributes to the greater good of those they represent.
One of my favorite examples is the IAFF and their endorsement of President Obama. Did EVERY IAFF member support the IAFF endorsing him? Of course not. Some re-defined what very vocal opposition is. But those elected by the union members to LEADERSHIP positions are expected to figure out what is best for the greater good of their organization and members. It did not work out when John Kerry was running. It worked out real well this time. After the past 8 years where the IAFF was virtually ignored by the White House, they now have a voice. Actually, they now have a key to the back door and are very welcomed guests. That’s politics. Those folks who WE elect to represent us are expected to do just that, and that’s true whether we’re talking about Congress, the president, the IAFF, the NVFC or the IAFC.
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 the 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, they 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—and many others—to ask yourselves if the fire service organizations that you belong to, to which you pay dues and are supposed to represent YOUR special interest, are doing just that? Are you PROUD to belong to that group (or groups), and are they doing what is 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.
Where were the organizations that represent you, when that needed to be said? When the union rep spoke with an emphasis on areas with large populations and heavy call volume, predominantly serviced by career departments with union members, other reps should have spoken on their behalf. While some cities have “huge tax bases, large career departments, modern equipment, and developed water supply infrastructure to assist them significantly in providing an effective and safe fire service to the citizens,” many career union departments do not. Many are running with old equipment, poor staffing and hydrants that are only a dog’s best friend. For example, look at the recent press about the hydrants in our own nation’s capital, Washington D.C. The water system is a mess. Cities like Columbus and Cincinnati are looking at layoffs—and many cities of large, medium and small size have already laid off thousands of firefighters. Who is supposed to represent them if the IAFF doesn’t?
When you said that the rep “failed to accurately reflect that the vast majority of fire service members are volunteers, giving freely of their free 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,” I asked myself the question, Why WOULD a union rep do that? That is NOT his job. And besides that, why would he push and support volunteers when his job is to provide for career firefighters? Supporting the non-career, non-union firefighters and the issues you raise is the job of the NVFC, the NFPA and the IAFC at varied levels. How did they do?
Look, if you’ve read my column before, you know I am a fierce supporter (in both action and words) of firefighters—ALL firefighters! I don’t care if you get paid or not or what skin color, rank or sexual orientation you have. I don’t care. But I do understand that reps must represent their membership.
So what about the greater good? What about ONE UNIFIED VOICE OF THE AMERICAN FIRE SERVICE? Should the IAFF, IAFC, NVFC, NFPA, ISFSI, FDSOA and the NFFF (which does represent all firefighters) 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 re-visit 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. Fortunately, the IAFC and IAFF aggressively joined forces and presented the FACTS to the entire fire service, to help un-confuse what was produced by Tri-Data. (Read about the debate
.) After all, when it is implied that there is 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 in some cases, I think we can agree that all national fire service organizations speaking as one voice is a good thing. Just ask those dues-paying members they represent.