Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Crazy Fire Lady (Part 2)

I have re-written this post several times. I have struggled with sharing the story, since it involves other people as well. As you read this, please remember that I can only share this experience from my perspective. I have no intentions of making my judgments yours or harming any one's reputation or character.

When I contacted the Fire Chief to express my concerns, he suggested that I talk to the local firefighters union president. Firefighters are city employees and what I took away from our correspondence was that a conflict of interest existed for city employees to help "fight" a city policy. He also shared that he felt the only thing that could keep the station from closing at this point would be public pleas to our city council.

I met with the Local IAFF president at a Starbucks early one morning after he finished his 24 hour shift at 7am. Another concerned resident of my neighborhood was there to meet him as well. I was not aware he was going to be there, so I was pleased I was not alone in my concerns with closing the fire station.

At this meeting, I learned that the City had also shut down 2 rescue units from another station in town a few months ago. I had no idea that had happened. Like many of us, I didn't pay much attention to my local government or politics. I could have walked past a city council member in the grocery store and not had a clue who it was. I always voted, read the paper but never really concentrated on the local level. I felt ashamed. How could I have not have even heard of this? I guess I could say it takes a lot of time and effort to raise a child, be a good wife and make the mortgage payment every month. I still felt ashamed at my apathy. I suggested we hold a rally in front of the fire station to get some attention to the pending closure. The union president said he could provide a few signs and could alert the news media of the rally. The other resident suggested a petition be circulated. We decided I would organize the rally and he would organize the petition.

I created the Facebook page "Save Fire Station 6 - Vancouver, WA" and listed contact information for the Mayor and City Council and urged people to contact them and attend the rally. (Today, 596 people have "liked" that page and receive updates.) I printed a one page flyer that stated the fire station was being closed due to budget cuts and urged people to contact our mayor and city council members, join our Facebook page and attend the coming rally in front of the fire station. Over 2,500 copies were hand delivered to the homes that Station 6 protected. Momentum increased and eventually we formed a PAC (political action committee) Friends of Fire Station 6. To this day, I still believe that it should not take a PAC to ensure government uses our tax dollars to provide core public safety services. It was an election year though, and getting politicians involved meant getting press and getting the word out to more people.

Now that we had a plan, I started to do some research on our fire department. The more research I did, the more shocked I became. Each new fact about our fire department was more disturbing than the last one. I discovered that our fire department was already staffed at half of what other cities our size in the state are. Insurance rates were virtually guaranteed to go up (as they had 8 years ago) due to the number of firefighters on duty. I learned that our fire department was WELL below the National and State guidelines for response times and staffing. I learned that these were only guidelines so that every local fire department could best determine their own needs and develop a "Standards of Coverage" of their own. I discovered that our fire department had drafted several Standards of Coverage over the years and not a single one had ever been presented to our city council.

"Well, all of that explains it", I thought. The city council members do not know any of these facts. They have never even seen a Standards Of Coverage to know how dismal our fire department is already. If they knew, there is no way they would consider cutting it even more. So, off I went to a city council meeting.

Our city council had (yes, had - a long story) a citizens communication (or CitCom) at the end of every council meeting for citizens to address the council. CitCom is televised to local viewers and although today I can say that I regularly laugh while watching, I was very intimidated at the thought of speaking there the first time. First, you know you are on live television. Aside from the does this shirt make me look fatter or do I have a booger hanging from my nose issues, you are standing at a podium under bright lights and facing 7 people in suits seated behind a long curved desk. I was sitting in the audience waiting for my turn to speak thinking about how I was going to put aside my insecurities and manage to say something half way intelligent so they would listen. The speaker at the podium's subject was tolls and the I-5 bridge crossing. Like I said before, it was a hot topic. Things turned very ugly while he was speaking. A council member began shouting at the speaker as well as the mayor and then she got up and walked out the room. (The video of this became a YouTube hit and eventually this incident was brought before an ethics committee and the council member was stripped of her board seats.) The speaker left the podium and then the mayor grabbed the next card and called my name out to come up and speak. I stood up and said, "Oh yeah, I get to follow that guy" and "Is she coming back?" on my way to the podium. I believe I nervously communicated what I had intended to, but obviously no one was really focused on what I was saying. All thoughts were on the huge bomb that had just exploded. Imagine my shock when I found myself sitting at the next table from the speaker at a local restaurant the next night. I learned a lot eavesdropping on his conversation.

Despite the rough start, I continued to go back and speak to the council over then next few months. The vote on the budget that would close the fire station was looming and I had to let them know what was going on. I had to find a "win" for them in keeping that station open. Let me say this though. Even though many people disagree with closing a fire station, most of them are not willing to go before the council and speak. I have talked to so many passionate people who find the process too intimidating or their schedules too busy. Some did go before the council as well, but mostly it was my face they saw before them in those months. At some point, I was afraid if mine was the only voice they heard, I would be viewed as "The Crazy Fire Lady" and the message would get lost.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Crazy Fire Lady (Part One)

Wow. How is it possible I have neglected this blog for so long? Well, it all started last July...

I came home one evening and saw on the local news that they were planning on closing a fire station. "What?", I said to myself. "How could anyone ever even think that that would be the way to save money?" Then, they showed the station and I realized it was MY fire station. The crew from that station had responded so quickly the morning my mom had a heart attack. I saw them all the time in my neighborhood on calls or shopping for groceries right next to me at the Safeway.

Our City Council was having a town hall meeting the following week, so I decided to go and let them know that this was just outrageous. Somewhere in my mind, I thought it had to be a mistake or a political ploy or something. Seriously? Who would balance a budget by closing a fire station? Wouldn't that be political suicide for any politician? Does anyone remember the footage of the World Trade Centers on 9-11? It hasn't even been 10 years since the nation mourned those 343 firefighters who rushed in to save strangers and perished alongside them.

When John and I walked into the school auditorium for the town hall gathering, we were met with a large, angry crowd, most of whom had a "NO TOLLS!" sign in their hand. They were angry it seems because our Mayor had campaigned on a no tolls platform the past November and had just stated that it appeared tolls would be necessary to build a new bridge across the Columbia River into Portland (the I-5 bridge). Well, he won the election over the incumbent and now these folks felt cheated. Every question was about the bridge and tolls. John nudged me and said, "Stand up and talk - even if it isn't about tolls." Thanks to John, I did.

Imagine my shock when 6 of the 7 members of the council spoke to me about "what a hard decision closing the station was but it was necessary to keep other services from being cut completely". Now, I was not only baffled, but royally pissed off. What other service is higher on the list than our firefighters? That night I found out that not only were they planning on closing the fire station, they were going to eliminate 13 firefighter positions and 21 police officers from the force. I left that town hall meeting full of anger, disgust and determination and I didn't even have a clue that my life had just changed forever.