First Arriving Network
First Arriving Network

Seeking the Wino’s Approval

The State Capital Doesn't Think Much About Firefighters

Austin, Texas is a large fire department in a large city whose latest chief was hired on the basis that she understand that diversity is the fire department's highest priority. That was from the city manager (why a city of nearly 800,000 people has a city manager form of government is an issue for another day). So now, in one sentence, you might have an idea of what the city's political and administrative leaders think about their fire department and its purpose.

A string of embarrassments and waste have plagued the department, the latest being that the city hired Goodwill Staffing Services to staff its interview boards and grade its entrance exam. Homeless people and the like were used to interview and, in part, select who would become an Austin firefighter. This was not the city's first choice, of course; they put out a call for community volunteers to do it but they did not get an adequate response. At the risk of worsening my Chronic Outrage Fatigue, I will say that this may be the stupidest idea in the American fire service that I have heard of all week.

First, the failed plan to use community volunteers is reflective of two dumb ideas held dear by those in charge. The elected "leaders" of a lot of cities think that people should work for free when it comes to the government. (And an increasing number of citizens do, too.) A corollary to this is the belief that firefighters are amateurs and that firefighting is not only not a profession, it is an avocation. This is why so many think that call volume is a good indicator of workload and why so many more think they can rely on volunteers to cover what today constitutes the fire service's field of responsibility. Anyone who has sat on a properly empowered oral board knows that it is hard and tedious work that can have a profound impact on a department's future. So why would some random civilians with a lot of time on their hands (!) hold so much power over something that affects so many people? Because they are free and we don't have to be all that selective in hiring a bunch of hose humpers and stretcher fetchers.

This harebrained idea might have been supported by the bureaucracy in charge for another reason. A lot of public administrators are inculcated with the idea that, because the community owns the public service, it should have a participatory role in determining its future. Hogwash. When the question is whether or not to convert a playground to a spray park or if curbside recycling is the right way to go then participatory community decision making is great. When it comes to something highly technical and highly dangerous that affects everyone this is a bad idea. Community input is important and should be respected but it should not be the sine qua non of decision making. This is complicated, hard, important work; it takes many years to even recognize the questions it poses.

Second, the homeless people. That is just pathetic. It is a slap in the face to all firefighters everywhere and a complete failure to provide for the future safety of the members and the public in Austin.

Is there anything else to say?

….. Thank you, Patrick Mahoney.

For some background on the city's use of the "chronically poor and homeless" on the recent interview board, read the American-Statesman article HERE.

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