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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

McClellan: Putting Out Fires Can be Complicated

 BY BILL McCLELLAN • > 314-340-8143 | Posted: Monday, July 18, 2011 12:00 am
Several years ago, when Sherman George was fire chief in St. Louis, the city's public safety director announced plans to review the Fire Department's safety training because of a series of injuries.

As is almost always the case with anything involving the city's fire department, the issue had little to do with fires and much to do with race and politics.

"We welcome the investigation," said the president of Local 73 of the International Association of Firefighters. At the time, Local 73 was feuding with George about promotions. Most of the white firefighters belonged to 73.

Meanwhile, the president of the Fire Institute for Racial Equality, which represented most of the black firefighters, said the review was unnecessary and politically motivated.

I called a firefighter whose judgment I respected. I asked about the injuries. The fault lies with smoke detectors, he said.

He explained that in the old days, there were lots of big fires. By the time a firefighter had been in the department for a couple of years, he had a lot of experience. Buildings were always burning.

But no more. Smoke detectors alert people before a fire can really get started. Most of the time, people can put it out themselves. If they do call the Fire Department, the firefighters arrive before the fire has time to grow.

So even guys who have been on a while are relatively inexperienced, the firefighter told me. That inexperience explained most of the injuries, he said.

I thought about that conversation when I read Paul Hampel's story in Sunday's paper about the Brentwood Fire Department. The story detailed the fact that for many years, Brentwood firefighters were paid for overtime they did not work.

The practice came to light when police were investigating an entirely different matter — the allegations that the city administrator had been stealing from the city. He has since pleaded guilty.

Because of the revelations about the overtime that was not worked, longtime Fire Chief Bob Niemeyer is being forced to resign. He will receive a $104,000 pension.

It was a great story, well-documented and containing unexpected twists. While Niemeyer tried to defend the practice, the union official who represents the firefighters did not. "At the end of the day, they were compensated for work they did not do, and that's not OK," said Kurt Becker of Firefighters Local 2665. Good for him.

The story also mentioned that the new fire station in Brentwood has an exercise center, flat screen televisions and reclining chairs. That's when I found myself thinking about that conversation about smoke detectors.

Our public safety system was designed in the days before smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. We needed lots of firefighters. They were as essential as cops.

In fact, the greatest calamity in the Chicago of my youth was not a crime, but a fire. Ninety-two kids and three nuns died in a fire at Our Lady of the Angels School, a Catholic grade school on the city's west side in 1958.

If you were to ask my kids about the worst fire they can recall, you would probably get blank looks in response. They could name some crimes, but fires? I doubt it.

When I got to St. Louis, one of my first jobs was as the night police reporter. We did not have a night fire reporter. What would he or she have done?

For the great majority of us, contact with the Fire Department more often has to do with medical emergencies than fires. I suspect we would be better served with twice as many ambulances and half as many pumpers.

But for a variety of reasons, we go on as if this were 1958. Part of it has to do with politics. Firefighters can be a strong political force. Certainly, they are in the city. Part is inertia. Why change things?

Osama bin Laden gets some of the blame, too. The 343 firefighters and paramedics who died in the 9/11 attacks have become part of the national lore. First responders who died heroically. They went into the burning towers to rescue people. Who could run down people willing to do that?

Of course, I am not running them down. I am just pointing out that smoke detectors stop fires, not crime. Cops are still busy. I doubt that the Brentwood police station has many reclining chairs.

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