Politics & Policy

First Responders Respond

Kerry's hot to pounce on City Hall.

Some firefighters were a little hot.

Sometimes a column, once posted here on National Review Online, can make for some unusual caroms out there in cyberspace. I was browsing the latest campaign news this week, for example, when I came upon this headline on the Fire Fighters for Kerry website: “Cop Badmouths Fire Fighters in National Magazine.” Hmm, I said, Who is this cop, and how can he be so brazen as to demean firefighters in a national magazine? Well, can you imagine my surprise when I discovered the item referred to…me? Yes, reprinted below the headline was href=”http://www.nationalreview.com/dunphy/dunphy200408030841.asp”>my last NRO column, the one in which I warned that all those yellow-shirted “Fire Fighters for Kerry” one sees everywhere don’t necessarily have the last word on how the nation’s emergency workers will be voting come November. As best I can piece things together, the column was picked up by the Bush-Cheney campaign blog, and from there it careened around the universe of ones and zeros until it fell before the eyes of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the labor union responsible for all those yellow t-shirts. And apparently it touched a few red-suspendered nerves.

The volume of e-mail responding to the column was unprecedented. Of the many correspondents who identified themselves as firefighters, the number who endorsed what I had written outnumbered those who had a beef with me by about two to one. Among the dissenters, some seemed to have lifted their words straight from the works of Michael Moore or Al Franken: Bush the moron, Bush the liar, Bush the no-WMD-finder, etc. And, of course, Halliburton, Halliburton, Halliburton. But I was thankful that there were also those who, while taking issue with the column, wrote thoughtful letters and raised valid questions, questions that cut to the heart of the political divide in America today.

Some firefighters simply endorse John Kerry’s vision of a nation in which no local problem is beyond the intervention of the federal government. This seems to be the view lately adopted by the IAFF. In his letter to the membership announcing the union’s endorsement, IAFF General President Howard Schaitberger wrote of John Kerry:

There has been no stronger voice in Congress on fire fighter issues. On collective bargaining, the FIRE Act, overtime rights, health care, prescription drug coverage and retirement benefits, John Kerry has been there for America’s fire fighters. He even unveiled the First Defenders Program, a plan calling for federal funding to hire 100,000 new fire fighters to meet nationwide staffing shortfalls and implement NFPA [National Fire Prevention Association] staffing standards in every fire department across the country.

There, in a nutshell, is a call for the further expansion of the federal nanny state, one that would have the not-so-coincidental side effect of adding to the membership and thereby the coffers of the IAFF. Elsewhere on the website is this risible claim about the federal dollars the IAFF hopes to see cascading down on local fire departments: “The funds will come directly from the federal government, so they will be less likely to become tangled in government bureaucracy.”

Sure.

If the Clinton-era Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program can serve as an example, this envisioned First Defenders Program will be anything but a model of bureaucratic efficiency. The COPS program promised to put 100,000 police officers on America’s streets through grants to local police departments, but so hopelessly entangled in the various levels of government red tape was the allotted $10.6 billion that even now no one can say with certainty how many officers were actually hired. And not even the most optimistic estimate puts the figure anywhere near 100,000.

Still, if the constitutional objections to the COPS program are put aside for a moment, one can argue that the rising crime rates at the time of its inception in 1994 were a call for the drastic measure of federal intervention into a crisis local governments were unable to contain. The same cannot be said of fighting fires in America today. In February 2001, the Wall Street Journal reported that the number of structure fires in the United States has dropped by about 40 percent over the last two decades to about 1.8 million per year. At the same time, the number of paid firefighters increased by 20 percent, to 275,000. “In Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, for example,” the Journal reported, “90 percent of the emergency calls to firehouses are to accompany ambulances to the scene of auto accidents and other medical emergencies.” And it’s important to remember that perhaps three-fourths of the nation’s firefighters are volunteers not affiliated with the IAFF; their small, mostly rural departments would derive no benefit at all from Kerry’s proposed federal largesse.

Now, before I further raise the hackles of those firefighters who found offense in my last column, I should point out that I heard no protests two years ago when I wrote this column praising New York’s firefighters for demonstrating their valor on September 11, 2001. And I regularly and with great admiration witness the heroism of firefighters here in Los Angeles: I even found myself in their care one night when I was badly injured on the job. Thanks in part to the efforts of a handful of firefighters and paramedics, I recovered in a few months’ time to resume my police career.

In the neighborhoods where I’ve spent most of my years as a cop, the firefighters and paramedics put almost as many miles on their rigs as we do on our squad cars; there isn’t much down time for those working near Downtown and in South Central L.A. But, if the firefighters in some sections of Los Angeles are overworked, isn’t that a problem to be reconciled at City Hall rather than at some new, far-off bureaucracy enshrined in Washington?

“It’s easy money,” some would argue. “The government’s paying for it.”

I offer a reminder to those who look to Washington as the bottomless font from which all blessings spring: The government has no money but that which it wrests from the hands of its citizens through taxation. If the people of Los Angeles decide it is in their interest to hire more firefighters, let them come up with a way to do so without looking to the taxpayers in Detroit or Dubuque to foot the bill.

Even those IAFF members who are somehow convinced that John Kerry is a reasoned moderate deserving of their endorsement might be surprised to learn how some of their dues are being spent. According to Political Money Line, FIREPAC, the IAFF’s political action committee, has thus far in this election cycle contributed $595,300 to 216 Democratic candidates in Senate and House races while giving $257,800 to 82 Republicans. In the 2000 election the numbers were even more lopsided: $817,800 went to Democrats while only $153,000 went to Republicans. And there seems to be no candidate so far to the left as to be unworthy of FIREPAC dollars: Henry Waxman, Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and Hillary Clinton have all cashed checks from the firefighters’ union. If any reputable polling company demonstrates that these numbers accurately reflect the opinions of the IAFF’s rank-and-file members, I’ll donate my next paycheck to Howard Schaitberger’s charity of choice.

You’ve got my e-mail address, Mr. Schaitberger–but I’m not worried about paying next month’s rent.

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.

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