Sunday, April 18, 2010

Open mouth. Insert fist. Repeat.

Firefighters can be morons. Time and again, when given the chance, we pick the least elegant, tactful, thoughtful, politic, wise, sensitive, non-solipsistic angle of an argument, bray it loudly, and then find ourselves truly surprised that people take offense.

Several years ago, when former-mayor S. Sayles-Belton was campaigning for Mayor, she gave a pitch to the members at a union meeting. Black female speaking to largely white male audience. The guys, strength/safety in numbers, were boorish & ignorant to her. She won the election and remembered her shitty treatment.

Etc. The examples are endless, ranging from minor and hysterical to major and incomprehensible.

The recent serious fire on Lake Street has many folks asking valid questions and, in absence of clear villains to blame, searching for possible paths to blame/responsibility. This was a local bar, a dive, with a handful of apartments above it. For whatever bureaucratic inefficient reasons, the building had not been inspected in over 15 years. That spans five fire chiefs and three mayors. The duties of inspection have changed hands repeatedly. There was an inspection scheduled which the tenant cancelled due to a conflict.

Survivors have all stated that the building was a mess, poorly maintained. Few or no working smoke detectors, no alarm system, years of neglect and haphazard reconstructions. Tenants didn't complain much, they said, because it was cheap rent. It is the duty of the landlord to provide basic safety for his/her tenants. It is also the duty of each of us to take some responsibility for our own lives. If you live in a shitty apartment, the cost of a week's cigarettes will purchase a smoke-and-CO detector. THAT right there would have saved most if not all of those lives. (More than likely the cause of the fire was careless smoking or unmonitored flame (candle).)

As media scrutiny (lots of bold headlines with little thorough follow-through) has chewed on this tragedy, the responsibility for the apartment's poor condition has been debated. Two fire captains have come forward, anonymously, to speak with the newspaper about the poor level of our training when we took over inspections again. Firefighters can be infuriatingly myopic, stubborn, stupid, even, about the big picture. Our job is not what it used to be; no city job is, really. Teachers certainly have radically different job descriptions than they did. Etc. But there was typical grousing from the general body over resuming inspections. We had a three-to-four hour power point lecture on the basics, and we were given a manual of codes. Prior to this, the inspections division had full-time, dedicated inspectors whose primary job it was was to know and interpret and enforce the codes. It was a budget move: save firefighter jobs by absorbing the inspections.

Personally, I felt the training wasn't the best--power point generally sucks--but they gave us a clear path to follow, they are always willing to help, to answer questions, and to come along if we ask. Even if I don't know all the minutiae of the building code, I most certainly DO know what to look for that is dangerous and safety related. Our job is to educate the public, in addition to address whatever emergencies occur. Any one of us should be able to see the lack of smoke detectors in a building.

The fire captains took the tragedy as an opportunity to vent about the 'hardship' of a program that is protecting junior firefighters' jobs. They made themselves, and all of us, look like idiots but claiming incompetence when the context was BASIC FIRE SAFETY.

Now, the conversation has shifted to our ability to do a basic task--when the bigger problem was that a. the building lacked basic safety equipment, and b. no one had actually inspected it. There discussion is off track if it chases the chimera of incompetence when there was a breakdown at the base level. We've managed to, once again, shoot ourselves in the foot gratuitously.

Three damaging fires in past three weeks. Three fires likely caused, or definitely caused, by smoking. Stop smoking and 'accidental' fires stop happening so frequently.

May good things come from the loss of lives. May they rest in peace.

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