By Laura King
All right. All right. All right. I wasn’t going to dignify Margaret Wente’s column about underworked and overpaid firefighters with a response. I changed my mind when I read online some of the more than 600 comments about Wente’s May 19 musings –632 comments, to be exact. What I’m going to say may surprise you.
We could talk about salaries and arbitration and parity with police and doing more with less; we could talk about who responds to tornados, train derailments, floods – all the stuff Wente and the Fraser Institute report on which she bases her column neglect to mention. (You can read my response to the Fraser report here.)
Wente’s opening line, “It’s good to be a firefighter, especially if you live in a small town,” holds no water; most small Canadian communities are protected by volunteers. We all know that. And we know that working seven or eight 24-hour shifts a month means firefighters put in more hours on duty than many Canadians do over 30 days in their 8:30-to-4:30 worlds.
I’m preaching to the choir. But the choir – that’s you guys – better start singing more loudly and more clearly, and in perfect harmony; loudly and clearly enough to be heard by the taxpaying masses who added their two-bucks worth to Wente’s remarks and whose online vitriol drips with disdain. It’s not my job or your chief’s job or the union’s job to advocate for you because someone wrote something you don’t like (the OPFFA did make a decent video about what firefighters do but I’m not sure it reached those taxpaying masses). If you want to change public perception, then do something.
Lots of commenters wrote about how much it irks them to see firefighters in grocery stores shopping for their supper (none explained why). Others bashed firefighters for having second jobs building decks or renovating basements. “Cut back on firefighters and Home Depot would go out of business,” one said. There were several references to firefighter hero complexes and the fact that firefighter unions back certain political candidates.
There’s nothing wrong with buying groceries, building decks on the side or being politically active.
But public perception carries a lot of weight. And the public – or at least a good percentage of the people who read Ms. Wente’s column – perceives that firefighters are a bunch of louts who sleep soundly on shift, dress in their gear to unnecessarily respond to medical calls for which paramedics are more qualified, stop at Sobeys to pick up pork chops using fire-department dollars (yes we know that’s not the case), and, if they are in Ontario, end up on the sunshine list.
The taxpaying masses also perceive, and perhaps in this case more rightfully so, that firefighters are asking for more in their contracts but want to do less – premium pay for training, fewer shifts, more vacation, more leave days, more benefits.
Does it matter what people think? If 632 Globe readers took the time to comment –we at Fire Fighting in Canada know that readers respond only to what really annoys them – then yeah, it matters, particularly if you let it get to you. And, many firefighters and firefighter associations seemingly do just that.
So how do firefighters – you guys – make the taxpaying public understand that you don’t sit on your well-paid, well-toned behinds all day waiting for calls from Mrs. Smith? How do you make people grasp the fact that the municipalities in which these angry commenters live – and the politicians they elected – determine the levels of service?
When firefighters in Slave Lake, Alta., were chastised after a wildfire burned part of the town rather than praised for saving an even bigger portion of the community, Fire Chief Jamie Coutts made YouTube videos explaining how long and hard his team worked, what they saved, how overwhelming the fire was. He used social media to turn the tables on the naysayers. Several of our Fire Fighting in Canada columnists have written about marketing your department to your community and helping to change negative public perception; doing so requires work, they note.
You are smart people. If you don’t like what Globe and Mail readers or the Fraser Institute says (even if it is inaccurate) turn the tables. Do something about it. Me and at least 632 others will be watching.