Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Fairview Fire Tax Dollars at Work

The Fairview Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 2623, invited me to participate in a live fire training drill at the Dutchess County Fire Training Center on November 12. I had the opportunity to go into a burning building to rescue a victim (fortunately, a dummy), and to fight the fire.  A respirator — and very close supervision by Fairview's finest — kept my body and soul together.  I also got to climb the Department's 100 foot ladder.  The photo shows me flanked by my two excellent guides, Fire Captain Chris Maeder and Union President Rob Ridley.
Safety and Risk

Although I felt pretty safe in the controlled training situation, it was obvious that firefighters could be at significant risk in a real emergency.  For me, the training session was only an adventure, but for firefighters, it's a way to lower their risk and increase their effectiveness when on a call.  Participating in these exercises increased my respect for the dangerous job firefighters do every day.

What Does All This Have To Do With Fire Taxes?

Two things:
  1. Fairview firefighters are highly trained professionals (or in some cases highly trained volunteers).  Their compensation is the main component of the fire tax levy in predominantly career fire districts such as Fairview.  Our fire tax dollars primarily pay the people who save our lives and property.
  2. Fairview firefighters use a great deal of specialized equipment to fight fires, to rescue victims, and to keep firefighters safe.  On any given call, only a small fraction of this equipment is used, but different calls will use different equipment.  The effectiveness of the fire department on a given call depends in part on having the right tool for the job at hand, as well as knowing how to use it. These tools cost money.  Most of this money comes from the local fire tax levy, although some expensive equipment, such as the “jaws of life”, is paid by other sources, such as federal or state grants. 
House Fire

By chance, I happened to witness a Fairview Fire Department team responding to a house fire last evening.  It took only 3 minutes after dispatch for this team to appear at the house with a fire truck, and only a few more minutes to get the fire under control.  This rapid response prevented major damage to the residence.  The rapid response was possible only because the team was already at the fire house, ready to go.  In other words, it was only because of Fairview's 24x7 career (paid) staff that this house incurred minor damage.  If it were necessary to wait for volunteers to arrive from other locations, this house would most likely have suffered major damage.

What Do Our Fire Tax Dollars Buy?

Fire tax is a hopelessly dry and geeky topic.  It's just a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper, or in cyberspace.  My report advocating consolidation shows dramatic differences in fire tax rates among fire districts in Dutchess County, with Fairview having the highest fire tax rate.  But what do the dramatically different fire tax rates buy?  Do higher fire tax rates tend to provide better protection than lower ones?  How much better?  What does “better protection” really mean?  The training drill and the house fire allowed me to touch and feel what the Fairview fire tax dollars buy:  Fairview fire taxes buy the ability to contain some fires in their early stages, limiting the threat to human life and the damage to property. 

Based on what I've seen and experienced, it is quite plausible to me that fire districts with low tax rates (typically staffed predominantly by volunteers) may tend to have longer response times to emergencies, and therefore less favorable outcomes.  In other words, you get what you pay for.  Is the high level of service in Fairview worth the high cost?  Undoubtedly, different taxpayers will answer this question differently.  This is the beginning of a new aspect of learning about fire districts for me.  I would like to see how things work in a predominantly volunteer fire district, in order to compare and contrast.