Friday, July 10, 2015

Go Local Prov - Ken Block no fire expert

There’s been much discussion this past week regarding the governor’s request for the GA to enact tolling for trucks on RI’s highways. Much of the criticism is aimed, rightfully, at the governor because she’s trying to rush this through without proper discussion or investigation of the best way, if any, to implement this system.

Similarly, there has been a rush by Mayor Elorza to implement a structural change to the scheduling of firefighters in the City of Providence. He, and his staff, announced over a month ago that this change would take place on July 1st, but as of June 26ththey have yet to come up with a definitive plan. This is totally irresponsible on his part. He still isn’t fully aware of the ripple effects, and their costs, that this will set into motion. He still doesn’t know whether any system he implements will save the city any money or whether it will cost the city more money to run the fire department. All he knows is that, at least in the initial stages, it will cut down on overtime costs. The same overtime costs that the city has chosen to pay over the last ten years or so because it was cheaper to pay the overtime than it was to hire more firefighters. At one point in 2013 the PFD was short by over 200 firefighters until they hired 100+ new firefighters in 2014. At present the fire department is still over 100 firefighters short of the full staffing that existed prior to the overtime “problem”.

Enter Ken Block of Watchdog RI and Dan Kinder, the lawyer for the town of North Kingstown who helped the town change their firefighter’s schedules. He then sold a bill of goods to mayors and town managers stating that they could all save thousands, or millions, of dollars by implementing the same plan. He, in his infinite wisdom as a fire department expert (not!), claimed it made no difference that one department might have 50 firefighters and 3,500 calls per year and another has 500 firefighters and over 45,000 calls per year. All fire departments are the same? Not so!

Mayor Elorza, having absolutely no knowledge of fire department operations and about 3 months experience in running a city, jumped on board without even discussing it with anyone who has a working knowledge of fire departments.

And then there’s Ken Block and Watchdog RI, the citizen(s) group seemingly set up to build a case for slashing fire department personnel and budgets in RI, to the rescue (pardon my pun). He has amassed quite a bit of raw data regarding RI fire departments including contracts, budgets and pension systems. He claims that the pension systems are unfunded and in trouble. Duh, thanks for pointing that out to the rest of the state, Ken, we didn’t know that.

He also claims to be the self-appointed guru in terms of knowledge of fire department shifts, staffing, costs and just about anything else that has to do with fire safety, firefighters and fire departments. In the search for truth and real facts it doesn’t help when John DePetro (another joker), Dan Yorke and Mark Patinkin acquiesce to his expertise on the subject of fire departments.

You know the old saying, “junk in equals junk out” with regard to supposedly error free software? I contend that this is exactly the case with all these so-called facts about fire department per capita costs that Mr. Block uses as basis for condemning RI fire departments and their costs. All the raw data in the world cannot change the facts. They can, however, convince people otherwise if they’re false, outdated, incorrectly entered or mistakenly interpreted. Mr. Block has been asked, on many occasions and by multiple persons, to share the link to the studies or surveys on which he bases all his conclusions. He has ignored these requests. He has stated that different factors regarding these studies, which have been put to him by people with working knowledge of the fire service, as “immaterial”. He did state that one of the statistics he quotes regularly is from a 1999 report.

He compares RI departments’ costs with the costs of other fire departments across the country. What he doesn’t seem to understand is the significance of the effects of population density, the percentage of volunteer departments vs. career departments, square mileage being protected and most importantly the presence or absence of EMS systems with ALS (Advanced Life Support) vs. limited or no EMS coverage included in fire department budgets. These are all huge factors in the costs of a department.

RI has a small percentage of volunteer departments, most are career departments. Nationwide only 8.2% of all fire departments are career departments with all the costs associated with such. In fact, 65.9% are fully volunteer.

Almost all, if not all, RI fire departments run with full EMS with ALS. Nationwide only 16.8% of all fire departments run to this standard with all of the costs associated with such. A full 38.6% of fire departments across the country run with no EMS at all connected to their fire department budgets.

As for the factor of population density, it is far more costly and presents a much higher risk for fire spread from building to building in densely populated areas. RI is the 2nd most densely populated state in the USA, behind on New Jersey. This fact also, justifiably, contributes to an increase in the cost of fire protection.

In another one of the charts posted on Watchdog RI’s website he compares RI’s fire costs to an area with about 1/9 the area of RI. On that very same chart he compares us an area about 4 times the size of RI.

Can you say, “apples to oranges”?

With the lack of anything I consider close to being accurate with the “statistics” he uses as the basis of his per capita costs for comparison of fire departments I have a very strong suspicion that his statement of “fact” that “67% of career fire departments used 24-hour shifts – and the vast majority of those were 3 platoon”.

It is time the media stop anointing Ken Block as the fire service expert in RI. If he is going to continue to claim this himself let him prove his conclusions by verifying his data and sharing his sources.

Making hasty decisions based on incorrect information helps no one. I believe the general public supports Mayor Elorza’s plan to add 14 more hours per week to his firefighters’ schedules because they’ve been told by “the expert” that this is the way the rest of the country does it and that RI’s fire departments cost much more per capita than anywhere else in the country.

Let him prove all his “facts” and I’ll stand down!

Tom Kenney

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