So I’m watching the local Sacramento news on Channel 3 (NBC) last night. A dramatic video is shown in which some firefighters are working on the roof of a burning building. Suddenly the roof caves in and the three guys have to run for the walls to save their lives. Pretty incredible stuff right? Brave guys on that roof fighting the fire, doing their dangerous job. This story is used as the lead-in for another story about problems with the Sacramento Fire Department’s budget. Seems that their budget has a shortfall because there is a huge deficit in the city budget. The result is that some stations will have to close on a rotating basis and some firefighters will have to be laid off. That of course isn’t the whole story, but that’s all Channel 3 reported.
Now this story might have evoked some sympathy in me two months ago, but not today. Just over a month ago the Sacramento City Council approved a two year, 15 million dollar pay increase for the Fire Department. Two things about that raise bother me; first of all, the raise was made in the face of a massive budget deficit. Secondly, Channel 3 failed to even mention the raise in their newscast as a possible cause of the need to close fire stations.
What good are well paid firefighters if the city can’t afford enough of them? What kinds of lunatics are doing the Fire Department and City budgets? Are they so snowed under by firefighter hero worship that they are incapable of saying no to them?
Firefighters taking a pay raise and then closing stations for lack of funds made me think about the problem with assigning hero status to a group of people. In terms of advertising, Firefighters have the ultimate brand, HERO. How can we say no to a raise when our heroes ask for it? I suppose that is why the City Council and the Mayor placed the motion to approve the raise on the agenda Consent Calendar. Doing so meant that the raise wasn’t up for public debate. They didn’t want debate and obviously with the lack of public outcry, neither did most of the citizens. Heroes are hard to oppose and after 9-11 firefighters are placed on a superhuman level, right up there with Batman and Robin.
There are of course other examples of hero-branding. Soldiers have all been branded as heroes since the 70’s. I recall the Vietnam War and the sometimes shameful way that soldiers were treated coming home. Those guys were doing their duty and they were ignored, harassed, even spit on. There was no excuse, but there was a reason; there was opposition to what they were doing and there were valid reasons for opposing that war. There was a sense among many citizens that personal responsibility should enter into a decision to fight even though the draft was in effect.
Heroes are important, but all of our heroes outside the comic books are flesh and blood. It is natural to want to acknowledge individual heroes but it is unhealthy to create a class of heroes, an association by uniform. There is no such nexus, putting on a uniform does not a hero make. It is what the flesh and blood within the uniform does that makes a hero. Squirting water on a fire no more makes me a hero than squirting water on my lawn makes me a gardener. Assignment of hero status simply leads to the potential that the group can be co-opted by the unscrupulous for gain.
It is irresponsible for firefighters to lay off positions and close stations so that the group can have a raise in pay. It is also irresponsible for firefighters to receive a raise from the city when the city has to make cuts in every department to make up 58 million dollar budget deficit. Our hero worship has overridden our common sense. We need to take another look at how we do business. An individual who runs into a burning building to save someone is a hero and should be lauded; but when the firefighters’ union leverages that heroism for financial gain, the union turns the Fire Department into nothing more than a racket.