Measure Q’s Fail in Contra Costa
What Happens When Too Many Folks Forget the Vital Nature of EMS & Fire Services
This is not about politics, but rather, about what should have been common sense.
There are “easier ways to make a buck” than to work in EMS, Fire, Police, the military and other public safety roles. But there are few more gratifying professions, not only for those on the ground but for we who build tools and technologies to help medics perform their sacred duties safely and effectively. A vocation is exhilarating when one can to wake up to know that today harbors the potential to make tomorrow possible for someone in crisis.
Yet it seems that as long as there are Emergency Medical Service and Fire professionals saving lives and property and the American dream, there will also be a shortsighted (but electorally loud) counterpoint: the minority who forget that public safety is a uniquely vital service offered thanklessly and often despite profound personal risks. Empowering public safety should be a shared responsibility, but the failure of Measure Q in California’s Contra Costa County in 2012 proves that when politics take precedence, everyone loses. Whole communities could be at risk while obstinacy and contention flourish.
There’s really no other way to put it: As technologies for EMS and Fire become more sophisticated, feature-rich, and (hopefully) more useful, the need for experienced medics who can deploy them during critical moments and leverage their myriad capabilities is ever more critical, not less so. In November 2012, Contra Costa’s residents failed to pass a tax measure that would have kept 10 out of 28 (35.7%) of the county’s fire stations—including their associated EMS teams—from closing within months. Exit interviews showed that a primary point of contention against Measure Q was discontent over firefighters’ pensions.
It pains me to say this—both as an American and as a business owner in the county—but poor judgment was precisely what made the Founding Fathers of these fine United States fear the public’s fickle persuasions and susceptibility to hogwash. Here is what should have been, but ultimately was not, seen as indisputable fact: You don’t vote to close fire stations in a fire-prone district so that you can save a buck; that’s how you find yourself and your home on fire. You vote to keep the stations open—then negotiate any financial concerns separately.
Most who know me (and are still willing to speak with me!) will tell you that I’m content to buck political ideology with a passionately extended finger, especially when it comes to public safety: there are topics that should surmount the cacophony of political grandstanding and yelling-to-hear-one’s-yell. We are, by various measures I care about, the greatest nation on Earth by far; yet we also make some really stupid decisions sometimes. I’ve never had qualms about swimming against the current, because sometimes the current leads over a waterfall to smash on jagged rocks. Let me say this, then, as one who once offered up his life to defend democracy: to vote down Measure Q was dangerous, petty, and foolish. Those who did so were either: (a) blinded by shortsightedness; or (b) ignorant of the challenges of governing; or (c) too weak to swallow a rough-edged pill. In any case, a vocal minority of voters was led astray by comparatively unimportant influences that should have been pushed back under the bed in the
interest of saving lives.
Welcome to your near-term future: California’s families work, play, and raise families in one of America’s most fire-prone states. Contra Costa County’s families live and work and play and raise families in one of California’s most fire-prone counties. At points, rich and poor live just blocks apart; rural lands funnel into urban clogs; the state’s industry ranges from agriculture to finance to film; and there are points where skyscrapers stand sentinel not far from mysterious, massive pipelines. When a Chevron refinery exploded in Richmond, California, in August 2012, inky plumes drifted over my Concord office and my and my colleagues’ homes.
How can a county with streets that local firefighters call “tinderboxes” (I lived on one) lack the gumption to pass a $75 per parcel tax to keep ~40% of its fire stations from closing within two years? California requires a 2/3 vote to pass new taxes. How is it possible that 33% of the county was insufficiently concerned for its own safety—not to mention those of its mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and dogs and cats and colleagues and neighbors and homes—to keep hills from burning and people from dying…for the cost of a few mid-priced dinners out?
It is worth noting that in Contra Costa County—as in most of the country—the majority of fire service activations are not for fires at all: some 70-80% of 9-1-1 calls to fire departments are medical in nature. Until their services are desperately needed, EMS professionals are oft-forgotten heroes among us who yet aid our beck and call when Grandma has fallen and Grandpa’s chest hurts and Mom is walking funny and Dad hurt his back and Baby stopped breathing and we need help NOW! But rather than pass a $75 per parcel tax, we’ve condemned 10 out of 28 county fire stations to close. Where I come from (the similarly fire-prone city of Los Angeles) we have words for such behavior, starting with “shameful,” and going downhill from there.
Counterarguments will be made by citizen-critics with ancillary agendas. For example: “Firefighters and paramedics don’t work enough hours to justify the pay they receive.” (I DARE you to try working a 96-hour shift and then putting out a structural fire...) Or this old saw: “Public safety pensions are too high.” (How would you feel if each day you risked lung scarring
that could leave you unable to chase after your children ever again?) The same arguments haunt Fire, EMS and Police; the military has politics to thank for a general reprieve from debates on pay.
Here’s the thing: I’m a centrist—fiscally conservative and socially liberal—and I think we should engage in debates about the nature and amount of public spending. In an era of historic municipal bankruptcies, these are legitimate conversations to have at length, and communities
that have them will ultimately emerge stronger for their more nuanced understanding of what it takes to make a business, city, county, and country. But these conversations should happen later.
As a dear friend likes to say, “Common sense isn’t so common.” Chuck Carpenter, chair of the Contra Costa County Democratic Party, once told me: “There needs to be a distinction between public employees and public safety.” Why? Because we can debate pension reform for every category of public employees, from teachers and legislators to janitors and mailpersons to public safety professionals. (Disclosure: I’m married to a public employee.) But when public safety is cut, everything goes downhill. We need people extinguishing fires, hunting rapists, and resuscitating a child who drowned in the pool. Something is different—indeed, special—about
public safety. EMS, Fire, and Police agencies are not only selfless, but they allow the rest of us to be, because we can rely on them day-in, day-out. As I wrote for an article published by the Contra Costa Times in November 2013 (http://www.contracostatimes.com/opinion/ci_24573517/most-powerful-and-expensive-health-care-law-youve), most Americans who watched the Supreme Court’s healthcare debate from the sidelines and relied (too heavily) on cable news for insight, missed the fact that the true universality of EMS in the U.S. was a central tenet of the court’s thought process.
How will Contra Costa County’s residents feel when they call 9-1-1, but there are no longer enough fire and EMS personnel on staff nearby to respond quickly enough to save the day—all because of $75?
What will you say, Fellow Citizen, when you’re lying on a stretcher in the back of an ambulance after you voted against funding to buy new defibrillators for your local EMS agency? You know who I’d hate to be? A legislator who votes against public safety, and then has a stroke.