Eliminate the fire dept.?

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It’s easy to conjure images of firefighters from movies, their heroic efforts to battle flames and save lives.

And no one can forget the images of 9/11, seeing the firefighters who lost lives while saving others, selflessly doing what they do best.

And those cute Dalmatians, who can resist them?

But that heroic nostalgia and iconic imagery comes at a high price. Firefighters cost Colorado Springs $60 million a year.

Is it worth it?

Could we do without them altogether?

Why not lose a few houses a year and let them burn to the ground? Replacing them would be less expensive than funding the entire department.

I know many consider it sacrilege to question the fire department in this way. Many politicians feel the same way.

At least one local politician has based her career on firefighter support, and no politician dares to cross their voting base.

I’m not necessarily writing to praise or bury the Colorado Springs Fire Department, but I would like to help people realize what they do.

Of about 35,000 annual 911 calls to which they respond, only around 700 relate to fires. Many of the others are for medical emergencies. Maybe it should be renamed the Colorado Springs Emergency Department.

As “first responders,” firefighters deal with more medical issues than anything else. This is not surprising when more than a third of the local population lacks health insurance and is frightened to go to emergency rooms or call an ambulance. If that’s the case, why send a huge truck rather than an ambulance? Isn’t this wasteful? Why not just call the private ambulance service?

A new fire truck costs about $400,000 and a ladder truck close to $800,000 (We have six of those). Our CSFD buys refurbished trucks that cost less than half of new ones. It also plans to open two new stations without staff increases.

Doing more with less is what they are thinking, especially with a business-minded mayor that expects them to be efficient.

If the CSFD dealt only with emergencies that are fire-related, the question would be: isn’t preventive work more important than actual firefighting? If yes, why are there only 15 inspectors out of a workforce of 465?

One answer has been to certify another 97 captains and lieutenants to do inspections as well. In fact, in residential calls, the team also checks for fire/smoke-alarms and when they are missing, installs them free of charge.

If all buildings had sprinklers, wouldn’t the need for CSFD be diminished? On one level, the answer is yes. On another, there is a difference between commercial buildings (required to have sprinklers) and residential (which are not), as well as between new construction (which are required) and old ones (which are grand-fathered without).

With this in mind, we may have to wait for old buildings to be replaced over time before fires would claim no lives. Incidentally, the 700 fires in 2010 claimed three lives and $12 million in damage, while $270 million was saved.

Last year 23 new fire-fighters were hired from a pool of 1,757 applicants. Why so many applicants? What’s the attraction? I’ll tell you:

Starting salary is around $41,000. Teachers start at $32,000. Average work-week is 56 hours (with a day on, day off schedule).

Another thing that makes the job desirable is the sense of camaraderie, team-work and collaboration. And, they’re trained to do a number of jobs.

When I co-owned the restaurant Il Postino (now Springs Orleans), it was the fire chief who came to my rescue when Regional Building inspectors gave me a hard time.

The chief wrote a letter of support that preserved the historical ceiling of a building without sprinklers two blocks away from a fire station.

The amicable Richard Brown was finally installed as the Fire Chief after Mayor Bach finally decided to keep Steve Cox in his administration (still a chief) — both good choices.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS who thankfully only dealt with fire inspectors over the years. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com Previous articles can be found at sassower.blogspot.com