Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Nobody Wins

Monday night's special council meeting requested by the North End Fire Company resulted in several things.

1) Borough council finally got a better taste of what they started when they kicked the merger ball down the hill four years ago.

2) All four fire companies were finally able to speak their minds more freely.

3) Everyone finally acknowledged publicly what everyone has been saying privately: the stumbling block throughout this painful, poorly enacted process all along has been the enmity between the Phillies and Goodwill fire companies.

As became clear in North End Chief Tom Braber's presentation, there has been a rivalry between the two from the very first day.

In the 1800s, some fire equipment had been purchased from Philadelphia and had the name emblazoned on the side.

When the volunteers decided to form the borough's first fire company, two groups argued about the name, and those opposed to "Philadelphia Steam Fire Company" left to form their own fire company.

Yup, Goodwill.

So in many ways, this is just another chapter in a very old story.

"Someday someone will have to explain to me how you can work together so well at a fire scene and then have so much animosity among you once you get back to your firehouses," Borough Council President Stephen Toroney said with a shake of his head.

Up until now, as best I can make out, the consolidation would have been a "win" for Goodwill in the sense that its chief, Kevin Yerger, headed up the committee and would have headed up the new board that was to oversee the new fire company.

The Phillies would have lost their firehouse, their beloved bar room and all their money.

For the Phillies, the best strategy was to win by not losing.

Having rejected the idea of the single fire company for a variety of legitimate (and some less legitimate) reasons I won't go into here, the Phillies instead joined forces with North End to make an alternative proposal -- one fire company, two divisions and everyone keeps their firehouse.

Needless to say, this idea was immediately rejected by Yerger. Which leaves everything just where it was before, some fire companies in agreement, some not and nothing changes.

Assistant North End Chief Dave Saylor took a shot at calling this chasm a "friendly rivalry" that was part of the tradition of firefighting.

In that he is not wrong.

As anyone who has ever seen "Gangs of New York" knows, fire companies in the 1800s were associated with gangs back before and during the Civil War and, as rivals, would actually get into huge brawls at fire scenes over the right to fight the fire -- as the building burned in the background.
The brawl outside the burning building in "Gangs of New York."

This is not a Hollywood creation, as was made clear to me in the History of New York City course I took in college.

It was also touched upon in the most excellent book, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" by Ednumd Morris, which chronicled Roosevelt's efforts to clean corruption out of the New York City Police Department. (The city had two, also rivals.)

Thankfully for Pottstown, as Saylor correctly noted and the evidence has shown repeatedly, when it comes to job one, the Phillies and Goodwill put their rivalry aside when it comes time to fight fires.

So where are we?

What wasn't truly broken, won't be fixed, but what has been accomplished, other than deepening the divide between the two?

Not much.

As I discovered while researching the matter for our coverage, the most important aspect of any successful fire company consolidation is obtaining "buy-in" from those involved as possible. That didn't happen, and, let's face it, might have been impossible to obtain.

Further, the steps outlined in the 2009 fire study Chief Richard Lengel paid for out of his own pocket,
which would have encouraged buy-in and mandated actual financial studies with actual numbers, were not followed.

(Note to Steve Toroney, if you're going to trot out a fire study as the rationale for pushing consolidation, it might be a good idea to actually follow what the study says as it pertains to process.)

But all this aside, the basic issues remain:
  • Is the current system sustainable into the next few decades? 
  • As Braber noted, fire calls are up 12.5 percent in just the last three years; building and home materials are infinitely more flammable, making response times more crucial.
  • Although recruiting of volunteers remains a struggle for many, the more worrisome aspect is how difficult it is to marshal enough of them to fight daytime fires.
And although he may have been overly callous when he suggested that making the fire truck drivers borough employees would allow the borough to fire them, Councilman Dan Weand was right about one thing last night.

When your house is one fire, you don't care too much who puts it out.

This raises the question of priorities which, as always, depends on whose priorities you're talking about.

So North End President Bill Moser made North End's three primary goals clear: Improve safety; preserve drivers' jobs; maintain history and tradition of fire company.

All fine goals.

But as Saylor put it in trying to convince council to take a more forceful role, "you're the leaders of the town."

And the firefighters (and perhaps a few members of council) must realize that council's responsibility
is not necessarily exactly aligned with the fire companies.

Within whatever power they choose to exercise, council must answer three questions when it comes to making a change in Pottstown's fire protection:
  1. Will this make it safer? And if so, present or pursue evidence that shows how;
  2. Will this be cheaper, or at least more economical? And do actual studies with actual numbers to prove it will be -- not just theory.
  3. Will this make it more or less sustainable? 
Some of those goals overlap, but preserving the history and tradition of the fire companies is a concern relevant to council's responsibilities only in as much as it keeps the fire companies active and willing to continue running into burning buildings.

To council's credit, they tried to let the fire companies work that part out among themselves, but 200 year-old rivalries are hard to bury and it would have taken a whole lot more leadership and effective planning than was shown to keep that hatchet buried.

Hopefully, this rivalry will not bury future, more deliberate attempts to preserve and improve fire fighting in town in a way that not only answers those vital questions, but addresses the concerns of those doing the actual firefighting.

In the meantime, here are the Tweets from last night's special meeting

1 comment:

  1. Disclaimer: I didn't read the Tweets or Storify. Proclaimer: The column is very well written, and helpfully insightful to those of us who lacked the background. Truly a nice job, Evan.