by Bob Murphy
The employees of the Post Office are the butt of popular jokes concerning their inefficiency. Those working at one's local Department of Motor Vehicles are notorious for their rude treatment of "customers." Many citizens – especially minorities – are suspicious of the police. And the agents of the State who work for the FBI, CIA, BATF, and IRS are downright feared.
So why don't firefighters get a bad rap, too?
I suggest this undeniable fact is due to the following reasons:
- Few citizens have direct experience with their fire department.
- Citizens have no benchmark against which to judge firefighters.
I can personally attest that my only contact with firefighters for the first twenty-one years of my life consisted of pulling over when I heard their engines' sirens. That, and one time my neighbor's house caught on fire. (I had nothing to do with it.)
That all changed, however, when I moved to New York City. In my first semester, the fire department was called to my apartment complex on two separate occasions. The first visit was due to a small fire in a single apartment. The firemen (yes, they were all men that I saw) prohibited me from using the stairwell to get to my room, even though the fire was nowhere near that area of the building. So I nodded my head in deep agreement that we must put "safety first," then went up a different stairwell which they had failed to seal off. The reader can imagine my surprise when I found my roommate sound asleep, completely ignorant of the fire. It was apparently hazardous for me to return to my room, but unnecessary to alert those already in the rooms of the fire.
The second visit was in relation to a gas leak, if I'm not mistaken. This time, the entire street was blocked with at least five full-size engines and several smaller vehicles. There were literally over one hundred firefighters (some of them were women this time) on the scene. Can you guess what these public servants were doing? Standing around. They did this for some time, much to the chagrin of the motorists who were forced to alter their course.
(I know, I know. They were on hand in case something happened. My only point is that if everybody had experiences such as mine, then the fire department would be considered as just another inefficient government agency.)
When a forest fire (well, one that is not deliberately set) takes several days to bring under control, or when several children die in an apartment fire, the average citizen has no idea if the firefighters acted properly, or if a private firm could have achieved better results. But every citizen is fairly confident that if he were a postal worker, he would not throw letters into the trash, or that if he were a police officer, he would go through his entire career without even once invading anyone with a broom handle.
- Fires are so devastating that it would seem quite petty to complain about the fire department after them.
- Firefighters are risking their lives for us.
- Whatever the outcome, the fire department can only be faulted for not sufficiently checking the carelessness or criminality of others.
This is also why police officers are accorded much more leniency than other government employees.
After a fire, it is always quickly reported that it was "caused" by such-and-such. Thus the destruction of property and loss of life, no matter how great, is ultimately laid at the hands of the arsonist, the company that refused to install adequate sprinkler systems, or the smoker who dozed off. This of course is the same tactic employed to exonerate police departments. E.g., "Ultimately, the Central Park attacks were the fault of the individuals themselves."
If anyone finds the above arguments defective, or has a novel suggestion, I would be very interesting in hearing his or her comments.
Bob Murphy is a graduate student in New York City.