Quick, do something fast! Your house is on fire! Dial 911, get everyone out and wait for the firefighters to come rescue you. That is, at least, what we in the United States have been brought up to do. In 2011, you may have to keep waiting, waiting, and waiting some more thanks to public service budget cuts across the country. This is having a devastating effect on local communities.
This is not an isolated trend nor is it one devoid of politics. There are the politics of budgets, then there are the politics of public vs. private, and then there are class distinctions which have been driving a lot of the fury around these issues of late.
One state after another is announcing public service cuts. From tiny Ann Arbor, Michigan to New York City and Los Angeles, firefighters are under attack from the budget knife as well as from political attacks, as we witnessed most recently in Wisconsin. This has already led to several fires that burned far longer and where people have been hurt or killed.
We have a long tradition of public service in this country, with many volunteer firefighters across the country pitching in. We have witnessed an unprecedented attack on the heroes who make up our local police and firefighter protection around the United States. Under the guise of budget cuts, there has been a continual attack on benefits, employment contracts, pensions, and ultimately the actual shuttering of police and firehouses across the country.
The Los Angeles Fire Department is battling its own budget cuts. This has created "heated" dialog everywhere from downtown to the Pacific Palisades. In the Pacific Palisades, which is a suburb community of Los Angeles, this battle is taking shape over Los Angeles Fire Department Fire House #69. This raises lots of issues of course, but the big one is over how the decision is being made. The issue in this community is that decisions are being made based on statistics of calls over the past three years throughout LA and the fact that in Pacific Palisades, there are fewer calls. The residents of the Palisades' particular concerns are that the community is surrounded by lots of unchecked vegetation, it has been a very wet year, and there has not been a bad fire in the community in many years (which increases its combustibility since there has been no burn off).
This community is exposed to the elements of the Santa Monica mountains, and is isolated from other communities due to limited access from roads; and is between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean with just a few ingress and egress points. The fight has come down to the Los Angeles City Council for final decision, and there are other competing communities also vying for attention. Councilman Bill Rosendahl is in full support of the citizens of Pacific Palisades. While the entire firehouse is not subject to closure, it is subject to losing an engine and crew. Interestingly, this community has one of the highest voting rates per election per capita in the County of Los Angeles. This community is well off and one would think it would not be in the position of losing its firehouse. But this episode is just one example of the heated battle taking place in communities across the country right now, and only going to get worse as state budgets continue to collapse.
The Pacific Palisades is a unique community, in that its emergency services needs are vastly different than the regular in-town community. The concern is that with the decrease in fire-fighting response, a brushfire, if started (which is not as infrequent as the calls would suggest), the cutback in fire-fighting ability could mean that things get out of control quickly and the delay to get extra help once the engine is removed could be significant and cause any fire to spread quickly. At the very least, the community needs full coverage during the fire season/summer months and when the Santa Anas are blowing and humidity is very low. Citizens have been told to trust that the resources will be allocated if needed, but there is no comfort level in that, if decisions are only made on a day-by-day basis, with no overall plan and commitment to the community, such as described above.
The real politics is that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has demanded cuts to the fire budget without regard to the issues and the fire chief is accommodating the requested number cut even though he would not otherwise be recommending a reorganization of the department. Other services and areas may have been asked to make similarly significant percentage cuts (although not police), but they don't affect people's lives in the same way.
Recently there was a huge outcry in Philadelphia when two children were recently killed in a fire that would have been serviced by a fire engine that was on "brownout," ie not on duty due to budget cuts. This has raised the issue of class and wealth, not to mention race, in these cutouts.
The Philadelphia and New York situations show clearly that many of these budget cuts end up affecting those in lower to middle class communities more often, although the Pacific Palisades example above shows that even wealthier communities are not immune from the budget cut and the associated drop in services and drop in quality of life.
So we have reached a critical decision point in the United States. Are we going to sacrifice our quality of life, our public safety over politically charged budget cutting, or are we going to create ways to fix the budget problems, and keep our lives safe?
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