View Block's data skeptically
By Tom Kenney
Posted Jul. 25, 2015 at 2:01 AM
When it comes to fire service experts in Rhode Island, there are many men who could qualify.
And then there’s Ken Block and Watchdog RI. He has amassed quite a bit of raw data regarding Rhode Island fire departments, including contracts, budgets and pension systems. He is, simply put, the self-appointed Rhode Island fire-service guru. In the search for a true fire service expert, talk-radio hosts and The Providence Journal acquiesce to his expertise on the subject.
Is this concession justified? I think not.
You know the old computer adage, “junk in equals junk out?" 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 the cost of Rhode Island fire protection.
All the raw data in the world cannot change the facts. They can, however, persuade people if the so-called facts are false, outdated, incorrectly entered or mistakenly interpreted.
Mr. Block has been asked, on many occasions, 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 questioned by people with working knowledge of the fire service, are “immaterial." He did state that one of the statistics he quotes regularly is from a 1999 report -- 16 full years ago!
He compares Rhode Island departments’ costs with the costs of others 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 in the state, square mileage being protected, fire load and, most importantly, the presence or absence of emergency medical with advanced life support services vs. limited or no EMS coverage included in fire department budgets. These are all huge factors in the costs of a department.
Rhode Island has only a small percentage of volunteer departments. Nationwide, 91.8 percent of all fire departments involve volunteers; in fact, 65.9 percent are fully volunteer. This fact alone would place Rhode Island's per capita fire costs in the top 8.2 percent in the country.
Almost all Rhode Island fire departments run with full EMS or ALS. Nationwide only 16.8 percent of all fire departments run to this standard. A full 38.6 percent of fire departments across the country run with no EMS at all connected to their fire department budgets. This would pretty much guarantee that Rhode Island would be in the top 16.8 percent of the most costly per capita. For the 83.2 percent that have limited or no EMS, taxpayers are not really saving money. Those EMS costs are simply budgeted in a different department.
As for population density, fire protection is far more costly in densely populated areas because there is a much higher risk of fire spreading from building to building. Rhode Island is the second most densely populated state, behind only New Jersey. This would suggest that Rhode Island ought to be either the No. 1 or No. 2 most costly state for fire service.
When you combine all these factors, it is not only justified that Rhode Island has the highest per capita costs for fire service in the country but fully expected! So, how can Mr. Block be taken seriously questioning spending on the fire departments of Rhode Island?
Are all of his statistics wrong, incorrect or misleading? Pretty much, in my opinion.
With the lack of anything I consider close to being accurate 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 percent of career fire departments used 24-hour shifts -- and the vast majority of those were 3 platoon” -- is nothing more than his wishful assumption.
It is time for the media to stop anointing Ken Block as the fire service expert in Rhode Island. If he is going to continue to claim this himself, let him prove his conclusions by verifying his data and sharing his sources. If he does, I’ll stand down!
Ken Block: 80 percent of firefighters live outside city, explaining disdain for taxpayers
Posted Aug. 28, 2015 at 2:01 AM
The cost of fire protection in Rhode Island has been prominent in the news this year. The debate has been heated (pun fully intended). Firefighter union leaders engaged in campaigns to impugn WatchdogRI’s data and mission. This response of shooting the messenger is predictable, since it is the union’s job to gain the highest compensation and benefits possible for its members.
In a July 25 Commentary piece ("View Block's data skeptically"), one union member, Capt. Tom Kenney of the Providence Fire Department, questioned Watchdog’s data and motivations.
While an open, honest debate is necessary to formulate great public policy, it is difficult to take Captain Kenney’s criticisms seriously. While I have the highest regard for the job of firefighter and the people who perform that job, Captain Kenney’s open disdain for the taxpayers and administrators in the city of Providence provides a necessary backdrop to his opinions.
Captain Kenney’s Facebook cover photograph is a cartoon of the character Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame), dressed in the garb of a firefighter with a Providence Fire Department helmet, urinating on Providence City Hall. To complete this picture, Captain Kenney lives not in Providence, but in Warwick.
I believe that this dynamic cuts to one of the cores of the problem. Captain Kenney is not vested in the financial well-being of the city in which he works. He is not exposed to the crushing taxes and uncertain economic future facing Providence as a result of disastrous contract giveaways, such as a 6 percent compounding so-called cost-of-living adjustments for firefighter pensions.
In fact, an open records request of Providence firefighters and their addresses shows that about 80 percent of the force lives outside of Providence. Only one of five officers in the firefighter’s union lives in Providence.
Captain Kenney’s claim that Rhode Island’s ranking as the second most densely populated state justifies our high cost of fire protection needs to be challenged. Of course, Rhode Island’s tiny size makes this comparison ridiculous. Only one Rhode Island community, Central Falls, makes the list of the top 132 most densely populated communities in the country.
There are many more densely populated areas of the country with lower costs of fire protection than Rhode Island.
It is difficult to ignore the stark reality of the raw data. When we compared metropolitan Rhode Island with more densely populated places such as Dallas, Phoenix and others, Rhode Island fire protection was anywhere from 33 percent to 100 percent more expensive on a cost-per capita basis.
More shockingly, metropolitan Rhode Island had roughly as many fire engines and fire stations as the Phoenix and Dallas fire departments combined, even though they protect more than 2.5 million people in a total of about 850 square miles.
Captain Kenney argues that few fire departments across the country provide EMS at the level that some Rhode Island departments do, one of the reasons for higher costs here.
Our question is: If most of the fire departments across the country do not provide EMS services, why do many Rhode Island departments do things so differently? If most of the country uses private ambulance services for EMS, should Rhode Island follow suit? How much money could we save?
Are Rhode Island’s fire stations located in places that make sense, given advances in firefighting equipment? Are there redundancies between communities where fire stations sit on either side of a municipal border, too closely together to make any sense but never looked at because of the border?
These are the kinds of questions that our report was designed to encourage. It is not anti-firefighter to ask these questions. Fire protection is a vital public service which should not cost far more here than other places.
We all deserve, and should expect, high-quality fire protection.
Our firefighters deservedly ask for respect, and frankly I believe their job demands it.
Taxpayers also deserve to be respected. We are not, as Captain Kenney depicts in his lowbrow Facebook picture, urinals.
WatchdogRI’s report on the costs of fire protection in Rhode Island can be viewed here: www.watchdogri.org/fire/firedata1.html.
Ken Block is the chairman of WatchdogRI.org.