All About the Benjamins is a 2002 movie about a bounty hunter who finally catches his quarry, and while doing so both find themselves making a decision that the diamond thieves need to be stopped, putting one’s freedom, and the other’s payday in jeopardy. The ultimate decision was to do the right thing. Money, it turns out, wasn’t all there was, but a need to live with oneself.
That may well be how the situation in Benton Harbor, Michigan needs to be analyzed.
In late 2011, after Benton Harbor was placed under a questionable practice of emergency financial management by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, fire and police were merged together into a theoretically sound concept of a public safety department. The basis for the combination of fire and police together as a single entity is based largely on the work of statistical analysis that points to logical conclusions that neither the police nor fire departments are ever fully “utilized.” Analysis of various parts of fire and police activities during the normal run of a shift or tour show large spans where it appears that the greatest efficiencies are not always being achieved. Or, put another way, the ambulance, fire truck, or police cruiser are listed out according to a calculation known as “unit hour utilization.”
The long and the short of this final figure is looking at the time a particular unit is dedicated to use for its designated purpose. According to the thinking behind this number, an efficient use of a piece of equipment would have that unit performing its designed function close to 100% of the time. Consider this concept for a minute.
If a fire truck, ambulance or police car is not in operation 100% of the time, it is not being fully utilized. If you are not constantly fighting fires, the fire truck is not being effectively utilized. If an ambulance is not committed to patient care and transport 100% of the time, it is not being effectively utilized. If a police cruiser is not patrolling 100% of the time, it is not being effectively utilized.
Most communities do not have enough buildings or things that can burn to have fire trucks used every minute of every day, nor would anyone want to be in, around, or within a country mile of such a community, not to mention the financial viability of such a community would be non-existent. The same can be said for an ambulance that is constantly rolling around the community, as the hospitals would most likely be overcrowded and the general health of the community would be such that it would rival the world’s most deplorable living conditions. Police cruisers operating in such a manner would be something akin to working in a war zone or in any large city where a riot breaks out on a 24 hour basis every day. No rational person would see these options as desirable, much less livable.
So as not to be considered irrational, the method of consideration moves to the next item on the scale, and that is the way employees are utilized. Factoring the normal concept of breaks and mealtimes, in an eight hour day, seven hours should be dedicated to actual functional tasks that can be measured and quantified on a measurement scale. In a perfect world, that would be how every single employee in every single job position in the world would operate. If every person seriously considers the way they work at their jobs, one would realize that this is simply not possible. Conversations at the water cooler, reading a non-work related email, spending company time reading up on a personal mater, or simply having that momentary daydream while in the midst of a task all detract from that 100% efficiency, and count against the “utilization.”
Within the realm of fire and police service is a component that is difficult to quantify, but from every person that is asked how they feel about their fire and police departments and how they serve them, the overwhelming deciding factor between good or bad is that little thing known as “personal service.” Different studies refer to it as different things, but the long and short of the influence is whether or not the firefighters, EMTs and police officers are taking that extra minute or two to actually talk with the citizens they serve, not simply ask questions or bark orders robotically and impersonally. Police departments and fire departments that run afoul of their constituents do not normally end up in that position because of a string of crimes or fires, but because the people who do the work simply not being “personal” with the citizens.
Fire departments outside of the East Coast typically run 24 hours shifts. It is tradition, and has proven to work very well for a variety of reasons. The time a call for service comes in varies. Multiple shift changes during a 24 hour period leaves increased exposure for overtime expenses. More shifts require additional personnel. A 24 hour shift is simply the most efficient way to staff for firefighting and medical responses. A call at 2:00 AM is not uncommon. Most people do not react well to being awakened at this hour and demanded to jump immediately to their jobs. Firefighters are trained to do it, and actually begin to prefer working in this manner. The unfortunate nature of this schedule is that it skews “unit utilization” data.
What is not considered is the amount of work that is generally performed by firefighters while on shift. Fire inspections and fire prevention activities, training, vehicle maintenance and everything that goes into making a functioning fire department are viewed, but often times fail to receive the proper weight in such studies of efficiency.
Prevention of fires does not have the same tangibility of fighting fires. One cannot say with certainty that a specific building did not burn today because of inspections and fire prevention. That would not be a intellectually honest, nor would it be rationally correct. What needs to be considered though, is a general trend of the number of fires, the size of the fires, the extent of the damage of the fires, and the cause of the fires. If all of these things are analyzed, a community can begin to assign a value to the fire department.
The same can be said of medical responses. In my experience, watching call numbers from certain settings both before and after a fire prevention seminar, the time of day when a majority of calls originated, the types of responses, and the severity of the complaints changed. The informal matrix that was used was the volume of calls no longer came in after 10:00 PM, but earlier in the day, shortly after lunch; the calls were generally for medical aid both before and after the session; the severity of the complaints changed to less severe, that is to say a person complaining of a strange headache and some strange sensations at 2:00 PM was transported to the hospital, whereas that same person prior to the educational session would have more likely to have been found by neighbors or family much later with the full effects of a stroke and its debilitating problems. This type of data analysis is not what is normally considered, as it is a much deeper data set than is deemed necessary. The reality of this information is irrelevant unless it is one’s grandparent or parent. Then it means the world.
Benton Harbor, Michigan suffered serious injury to one of its three firefighters in the early morning hours of March 14, 2013. Lt Doug Bell was the only firefighter to respond to a house fire. He was trapped inside the burning home during the blaze and suffered burns to his hands, back, face and neck. He was eventually rescued by two of the public safety officers who were on police patrol once they arrived to begin functioning as firefighters. This response scenario has been in place only since Benton Harbor was placed under emergency financial management.
What is not entirely clear at this early stage is what conditions existed that lead Lt. Bell to enter the structure by himself. Seasoned firefighters will likely surmise that the time of the call-early morning; they type of structure-residential home; and probably the presence of a vehicle nearby all indicated to Lt. Bell that there was a very high probability of trapped occupants. At this point, the first priority of firefighting-life safety-needs to take precedent.
The extent of Lt. Bell’s injuries are not public information at this time, but inference regarding the types of burns he sustained would indicate that he will not be returning to work any time soon. Burn treatment and workers compensation claims will cost Benton Harbor significantly, so much so that any savings that have been realized in the past year or so of the combined public safety department may evaporate.
To be clear, there is no indication at this point that the decision to create this combined public safety department was a direct or indirect contributor to this incident, but if one is intellectually curious, it does raise the question.
Consider the implications of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and specifically 1910.135, which is the federal rules for respiratory health, which applies to firefighting, and effectively creates the rule known as “2 in, 2 out.” The effect of 29 CFR 1910.135 is that there must exist at any firefighting scene two firefighters waiting and ready on the outside of a building for the two firefighters who are working inside. It also establishes that whenever an environment is IDLH, or Immediately dangerous to life and health, such as a burning building, that proper respiratory and personal protective equipment must be warn and no fewer than two people enter the environment together, and remain in constant communication with each other and with those outside of the IDLH environment.
Benton Harbor is relying on one person who is on duty at the fire station to bring the fire truck, and the nearest public safety officers on patrol to break off patrol and all respond to the fire scene. Consider the public safety officers may be in the middle of making an arrest, transporting a suspect to the booking room, or investigating a crime, and now they have to stop that, and respond to the fire. Meanwhile, a single firefighter is responding with the fire truck, who needs to lay a hose line, set the pump in gear, and then move into a firefighting position-all tasks that are normally performed by at least three if not four individuals.
Add to this situation the need to rescue a person trapped inside a burning building. The hose line and other considerations are placed in a secondary position. If there are at least three people arriving on the scene together, such an effort can be undertaken with a controlled amount of risk. But if the person is forced to operate alone, the risks are extremely difficult to control, and the potential of the scenario that befell Lt Bell becomes exponentially more likely.
Now we will have to wait for the OSHA report that will be published after this incident is investigated to know for certain, but the question that needs to be explored is the extent to which the creation of the public safety department contributed to the circumstances that led to this situation. Would the conditions encountered by Lt. Bell, that led to his injuries, have been avoided had a minimum of three people arrived on the engine versus a single person? Did the public safety officers on patrol arrive at approximately the same time as Lt Bell, or were they delayed by law enforcement activities? How have other fires and fire responses been impacted since the creation of the public safety department and its response design?
Benton Harbor’s EMF and Governor Snyder need to ask the question now, is it still all about the Benjamins? Is the money the only thing that is driving the decisions, after all of the posturing, politicking and obfuscating is cleared away? Where is the moral justification to save money at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods? Is the issue of a failed series of economic decisions really resolved by gutting public safety?
What Benton Harbor, the other dozen or communities under emergency financial management, and the US as a whole needs is some smart investment in PEOPLE. Creating jobs that actually mean something to a family, and not just a good profit margin for a company are the basis for this change. Getting a positive cash flow into these communities is what is needed. Taking companies that simply profiteer off of communities to satisfy shareholders to task and demanding they contribute to the greater good is necessary.
During the last national election cycle, there was a group that was heard claiming they had built their business on their own. It would not be wise to decry the entrepreneurial spirit that brought these individuals their wealth, but they did not build their business in the vacuum of space and beam their products to earth. They made their fortunes because a society allowed them to do so.
Proof of this would be the network of roads raw materials and finished good use to move from source to store shelf. No one company built any of that, and no company exists without the road network. Semis are the single most damaging vehicle on the roads, so if a community has massive heavy traffic due to these companies, can the company claim “Not me” when the bill comes due for the roads?
Public safety is the next leg of the journey to wealth. If not for the rule of law and the protection of a community from marauding bands of thieves and the ravages of unstopped fire, none of these “self-made” entrepreneurs would have a penny to their names. The community in which their business started and resides is there because a band of citizens decided to collectively establish law enforcement and fire protection organizations for the betterment of all within their community, including the upstart business.
So, the question needs to be asked again, why the austerity for the communities that where built to support these companies, and not demanding that these companies step forward and share the wealth with the people that permitted them their success, and keep adequate fire protection and police protection?
The people of Benton Harbor and Lt. Bell need to hear the answers. They deserve the answers. If the EMF and Governor Snyder cannot provide one, maybe the time has come for new leadership. The EMF has had its run, and it does not seem to be making the proper progress that was promised. When citizens lose their voice and local control in government, and then lose their local public safety, why bother with any government? As a society, this moves us all closer to our ancestral roots as hunter-gathers, not a situation too many Americans would be comfortable with embracing.
The other question that needs to be assessed is whether or not Lt. Bell’s injuries would have happened had Benton Harbor still operated its fire department with at least three personnel responding on the fire truck? Would a dedicated firefighting force have been better positioned to make the necessary initial on-scene determinations from all sides of the structure to ensure safety prior to entering the building? Would that force have been able to work more effectively and efficiently in knocking down the fire before the conditions appeared that caused Lt. Bell’s injuries?
The last question is one that could be answered in the affirmative. A company of two firefighters can move a hose more efficiently and effectively than a single firefighter. Two sets of eyes are able to register more information than one set, and two brains can analyze that information more readily than one. There is a reason that firefighting has been down with teams, or companies of firefighters. There is a reason why the National Fire Protection Association has a recommendation that no fewer than four firefighters be present on the scene of a fire before anyone enters the building. There is a reason why OSHA has regulated the “2 in, 2 out” rule. It has everything to do with safety.
So, when it comes down to money or lives, shouldn’t we choose lives?