With national elections on the horizon, we are constantly bombarded by each candidate’s economic quick-fix version which usually only serves to raise the debt ceiling culminating in just another “rainbow stew” budget line item to be shouldered by the American worker. In reality, the only possible long-term solution to what ails our great nation was proposed in 2002, just before his untimely death. It has been nearly 14 years since the passing of a true American hero, Senator Paul Wellstone. A dated dispatch from the St. Paul Pioneer Press that quotes Senator Wellstone from the Senate floor as saying, “If you want real welfare reform, you focus on a good education, good health care and a good job. If you want to reduce poverty, you focus on a good education, good health care and a good job.” Wellstone continues, “And if you want to end the violence … you could build a million new prisons and you could fill them all up, but you will never end this cycle of violence unless you invest in the health and the skill and the intellect and the character of our children — you focus on good education, good health care and a good job!” When the cheers finally died down, Wellstone deadpanned: “And other than that, I don’t feel strongly about anything.”
“When a President goes through the White House door and does what he says he’ll do we’ll all be drinking that free bubble-up and eating that Rainbow Stew.”— Merle Haggard 1937-2016
Truer words have never been spoken. In the next few paragraphs, I will examine each of Senator Wellstone’s dynamic points and apply them to our fire service. The ability to obtain and sustain a productive livelihood is directly correlated to the amount of education possessed by the individual. Educated members of the fire service, and society in general, have far more opportunities made available to them. Opportunities for advancement are more prevalent to those with some type of formal education. Overall, educated employees contribute more to the organization in which they are involved, which ultimately contributes to the community.
Education is therefore a win-win-win situation for the employee, the employer and the community. Education is the final frontier in the quest for the fire service to shift from what is often perceived as a trade, to a profession. Many in the fire service have already made or they are in the process of making this life-changing transition. A quick look at any good paying profession indicates that a degree of some type is mandated. When is the last time you went to a doctor and did not see a degree posted on the wall? There are now many fire service related degree programs available across the nation. Many of these can be taken via distance education in the home or at the fire station.
As individuals, we have the ability to initiate change and increasing our education is an excellent place to begin in this effort. An educated workforce will ultimately raise the status of the profession and command a higher salary along the way.
Good, affordable, and available healthcare is important to all Americans, and especially to the American firefighter. The inherent dangers faced by firefighters will continue to make insurance a high priority among those engaged in the fire service. This concern also extends to the members of the firefighter’s family. Firefighters must know that their families will have adequate medical coverage, even if they are unable to work due to illness or injury. In today’s world, it is simply unthinkable to not have at least some form of basic insurance. The rising costs of insurance and declining budgets may cause some cities to consider cheaper plans or tempt them to raise deductibles to an unreasonable level, effectively rendering the coverage useless except for catastrophe. Those responsible for fiscal administration must continue to maintain premium employee insurance as a high priority. Fire administrators must also demand that fire service personnel maintain an acceptable level of physical fitness and overall good health. Accountability should be put upon the individual to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Everyone pays when excessive, often avoidable individual claims drive up premiums.
Firefighting is a profession and should command salaries commensurate with like professions. Those involved in the fire department recruitment process state there is a direct correlation between the quality of the potential applicant and the pay that is initially offered. Often, many low paying fire departments serve merely as training grounds, and ultimately lose their best firefighters to better paying fire departments. Decent wages and benefits must be offered in order to attract and retain decent employees. Municipalities should make every effort to fairly compensate those that protect them day and night. According to Chief Jon Hannan of the Charlotte Fire Department, “firefighter pay is a direct measure of the amount of public respect regarding the firefighter.” Again, fire department personnel should always strive to project a positive image and look for creative ways to market their services. Fire administrators should encourage employee-driven programs that will not only increase efficiency and the delivery of these services, but enhance the public’s image of the fire service as well. The extra effort could possibly make the difference at budget time and could be reflected in the size of the raise that is offered.
I am sorry to say that I did not closely follow Senator Wellstone’s career, however, I am convinced that working America lost one of its greatest supporters on the day of that fateful plane crash. May his words of wisdom continue to support the cause that he so adamantly defended, that every American that puts forth the effort is entitled to a good education, affordable healthcare and a decent job. Governing bodies should at the very least afford our nation’s firefighters with available educational opportunities, provide decent health care coverage and furnish decent pay. As individual employees, we should also strive to self educate, to take care of ourselves and go beyond what is normally expected to earn our pay. This is the surest way to achieve better working conditions and professionalism in the United States fire service.