July 24, 2011

Crediting the Good, While Debiting the Bad

Justin Katz

It's come up in the comment sections, but I've been meaning to comment on Michael Morse's essay describing the ghosts that haunt the urban firefighter-EMT's dreams after twenty years on the job since I first read it in early June. Michael puts those who focus on the affordability of public-sector pay and pensions in a delicate position — deliberately, I imagine. Who could look such a man in the eye and balance tax rates against the trauma of his experience?

Such balances have to be made, however, and both sides of public policy questions have to be weighed. Were resources unlimited, and were human nature less complex, we might be able to assess the value of every job based on the case that its practitioners could make for themselves. As it is, we have to be a bit more circumspect about various measurements of value.

For one thing, firefighters and EMTs are not solely rewarded through their pay and benefits. Michael provides a bullet list of dramatic scenes — murders, suicides, child abuse, and accidents — but (for this particular essay, at least) he places his hand over the other side of the ledger. How many days did he drive home justifiably feeling heroic? How many lives has he had the opportunity to save? People to help? His twenty years haven't been a long slog of death and unavoidable failure, and while one can place a dollar value on neither the strain of helplessness nor the euphoria of defeating death and destruction, at some abstract and variable point, they would surely balance without any monetary compensation at all to make up the difference.

The careful reader might note a mild contradiction in Michael's text: When speaking of the passage of time between his early days on the job and the present, he writes that "20 years passed in the blink of an eye." Yet, a few sentences later, "20 years in firefighter time is a long, long time." That's hardly an "a-ha!" catch on my part. "The blink of an eye" is a mere turn of phrase, and the reference to "firefighter time" evokes the fullness of the days, weeks, and months. An important point hides within the contrast, though.

Michael's twenty years have been rich in experience, and despite the tone of his essay, not all of them have been haunting and negative. Some midlevel corporate functionary who's trudged through the same length of time among gray cubicle walls bathed in florescent lights pushing numbers along some process watching his body soften and sag every time the computer screen goes blank won't have the smell of charred infants in his nostrils, but neither will he know the pulse of a revived heart beneath his palms. Time is slow, indeed, for those with no cause to blink.

Even with life affirmation and a sense of purpose somehow factored into the equation, it may very well be that twenty years is too long for some men and women to spend battling flames and injury in particular environments. If that's the case, it still isn't obvious that the solution is twenty to thirty years of retirement, particularly when the cost thereof threatens the very solvency of the local civic structure. Perhaps the solution lies in the opposite direction — removing the incentive to linger on the job for so long, making firefighting an experience shared by more people, earlier in their lives. Or perhaps the necessary changes needn't be so dramatic.

Whatever the case, I can only encourage Michael to enlist the memories of his victories in the fight against his demons. An unsustainable pension system can in no way substitute for the strength that he has within.

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I also noticed the inconsistency during my first read-through, but I chose not to bring it up because I felt that it would only prolong the "parade of horribles" presentation, which is totally irrelevant to the pension discussion at hand. It's impossible to have a accounting discussion about bills to be paid when your negotiating partner is talking about charred babies on the other side of the table. You're kind to give the topic treatment in it's own right, but keep in mind that it was not trotted out in isolation. I considered the time and placement of the message to be so shameful and self-serving that acknowledging it as anything more than that would be irresponsible and counterproductive. There are real financial problems involved here, and emotional appeals have no place in bankruptcy proceedings. The horrors of the job might make a good book, nonetheless - the author has his second one coming out soon, also conveniently mentioned within the editorial.

Posted by: Dan at July 24, 2011 2:18 PM

Thanks Justin, nice balance to the original OP/ED. The reason I wrote it is contained in the words already, no reason to elaborate there, except to mention an important thing. Tax rates are one thing. Tax priorities quite another. Retirement after twenty years for a clerk or teacher is one thing, a cop or firefighter another.

I've written a number of things that were published in the mainstream that focus on the positive side of firefighting. Now seemed like the perfect time to point out reasons why twenty years should be considered time enough for people who might not be able to do another ten. It's a heavy price, both for the taxpayer and the employee, but things of value are not cheap.

Dan, what can I say, you are starting to scare me. Nowhere in the piece was mention of or promotions for any book, present, past or future, other than a mention by the editorial staff at the Providence Journal, not as a plug for me, but as a way to give their contributors credibility. The fact that I have published a book does not make me any more credible than the next guy, but the paper lists credentials of every contributor.

I have more thoughts on this if anybody else comments, if not no sense carrying on, I think I got my point across in the original if anybody cares to read it carefully.

Oh, "blink ,"of an eye and "long, long time" were used purposefully and in my humble opinion effectively, illustrating in two phrases the contrasting mind set one experiences as life progresses.

Posted by: michael at July 24, 2011 3:35 PM

Michael I have your back in this argument. But like Justin, I find my time --compromised --and cannot give you a more complete answer. Dan. Well he is like the deerfly on your back when you are working... a constant reminder that you are in the grand plan no more than a mosquito yourself -hell on earth- with a Dan in your hear and on your back. Dan. The wheeler dealer knows best. Just ask him.

Posted by: David S at July 24, 2011 6:59 PM

As the small comment box opened on my computer the first words I read were, "I also noticed the inconsistency..." and I needed to scroll down no further to know Dan was about to enlighten us with the evils of the pension system and public sector employees.

Posted by: sierra1 at July 24, 2011 7:58 PM

I've said before, let Dan write long enough and everything will come clear. Judging from his latest comment he is delusional and makes things up to suit his world views, or his attacks on one Providence firefighter. He's just a nuisance, really, but he is kind of funny.

Posted by: michael at July 24, 2011 8:29 PM

You're right, Michael. Charred babies are relevant to the pension discussion. It's not a fallacious appeal to emotion. That should be the focus - the horrors that firefighters see on the job. Not the systemic budget shortfall and how to balance it. Let somebody else figure it all out. That's a responsible attitude.

You're right, David. Your high-unemployment, high-tax, mandatory-union, progressive blue state is going bankrupt and is currently ranked #50 for business, but you guys know what you're doing. Young professionals like me should just get out if we don't like it - you don't need our business or tax dollars. 50 cents out of every tax dollar going to retirees is totally sustainable long-term. My low-unemployment, low-tax, right-to-work, red state ran a surplus last year and we're currently ranked #1 for business, but we're just a bunch of ignorant, worker-hating racists down here - what do we know? Just ignore me. Just ignore all your problems and everything will be fine. That's worked out well for Rhode Island.

You guys are so right. You should pat yourselves on the back and tell each other how right you are. Ah, I see that you already did.

Posted by: Dan at July 24, 2011 9:00 PM

Sierra - Was there a point to your post besides putting me down? Is it your contention that there is *not* a problem with the Rhode Island pension system? Does 50 cents out of every dollar going to current retirees actually sound sustainable to you?

You jumped the gun a little bit in your attack on me. I didn't mention public employees anywhere in my post. FYI I have no problem with public employees or even unions generally. Don't sweat it, it's tough to be accurate. Not the first time you've misrepresented what I've said.

Posted by: Dan at July 24, 2011 9:09 PM

I think my point was clear, as soon as I saw the first three self-congratulatory words I knew it was you posting. I also knew that what would follow would be some sort of attack on the public sector, the work we do or our pensions.

Dan, have you ever seen a "charred baby" as you so casually put it? I can't get the image out of my head. How about a teen with his lower leg amputated by a passing car, in shock and asking if he had to pay for the rescue run? How about seeing the anguish in a woman's face as she ID's her dead brother who just drove into a telephone pole? The woman beaten beyond recognition with a frying pan, brain matter dripping out of her ear, still alive, moaning for help as you search her apartment for the suspect? The guy you have at gun point following a car chase who reaches into his waistband, as you start squeezing the trigger he pulls out a cell phone and not a gun? What would life be like for you and your family if you hadn't been able to stop that trigger pull? Or the countless shooting victims, some who live, some who die at your feet? Some people handle these things better than others, some people can't wait to finish 20 years and get out, all they ask for in return is what they were promised, not too much to ask.
Dan, we don't see these things on a daily but they take a toll. On a daily basis we do deal with things that will raise the blood pressure, put you in danger, and tax your mind, body and soul. Its why the job isn't for everyone and its why no one should have to do it until we're 65.

Posted by: sierra1 at July 24, 2011 10:33 PM

Thanks Dan, after my previous post I now find that my blood pressure is through the roof and my minds racing. It won't be a restful nights sleep tonight. If I go into work tomorrow and file for a pension its your fault!

Posted by: sierra1 at July 24, 2011 10:40 PM

Sierra - I saw many terrible things as a criminal prosecutor, none of which were the slightest bit relevant to my pay or the finances of the City of Providence. It seems that Michael's red-herring parade of horribles has achieved its intended effect - the conversation is successfully diverted and attacks on the unsustainable pension system are now seen as an attack on firemen personally and those they serve - women, children, and victims of all kinds. Anyone making suggestions to avoid bankruptcy or return the system to solvency is now automatically a monster who agrees with fires, dead babies, etc. This is what I was trying to avoid by pointing out the irrelevancy of it all, but I can see that the union/progressive usual suspects are only too happy to shout me down in solidarity instead. Have it your way and ignore the problem - Central Falls is coming to Providence and the result will not be pretty. You can thank Michael for your ghostly visions - all I consider relevant to the discussion is math and economics. We should be talking about 401ks, not domestic violence and gunshot victims.

Posted by: Dan at July 24, 2011 11:34 PM

Dan, you saw nothing terrible as a prosecutor, you saw a nice tidy package of police reports, still photos, and legal forms. Based on your age and years out of law school my guess is you were nothing more than a Rule 9 interning during the summer between your 2nd and 3rd year of school, picking up the easy cases the AG or overworked PD didn't feel like doing.
But besides that, I agree about new hires getting 401k's and returning the current pension system to solvency. If that means a combination of raising everyone's taxes (mine included), slashing the obscene welfare handouts and making me work a few extra years until I can become eligible to collect. It's a contract plain and simple fulfill your end of it.

Posted by: sierra1 at July 24, 2011 11:48 PM

You're right, sierra, this is what's important - debating who has the "tougher" job and insulting each other. Not the insolvency of the Rhode Island pension system. This conversation is what matters.

I can't believe I let you and Michael and "David S" suck me in to yet another "nuh-uh, yuh-huh" playground shouting match about such nonsense. Apparently even acknowledging something as irrelevant is too much attention for the easily distracted and outraged.

But since one iota of your post is actually relevant - converting new hires to 401k plans is totally insufficient, and the contracts are essentially now irrelevant as the cities teeter on the verge of bankruptcy. As I already stated and you ignored, current retirees are sucking up 50% of the tax revenue. That is fundamentally insolvent, even in the short run. The current pensions need to change, period. Raising taxes as a solution? Really? RI is already at #50 out of 50 in the business rankings. Are you competing with the 3rd world now?

Posted by: Dan at July 25, 2011 12:27 AM


The contradiction in Michael's statements is something that shows the extreme highs and lows this job puts you through. Most of us feel that this is the best job we've ever had - or could have. Many of us, however, have been completely beaten up both physically and spiritually over the years with no end in sight. Maybe it's something that only firefighters can fully understand.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at July 25, 2011 6:06 AM

"Maybe it's something that only firefighters can fully understand."

Did I actually just read this written by a firefighter? This is the mentality that I have lampooned over and over and over again on this blog, but I never expected somebody to actually just come out and *say* it. Tom Kenney, you are a living, breathing caricature. I think the lying material-thief Dennis Leary still has you beat on rhetoric. Regardless, you should have tried out for Rescue Me.

Posted by: Dan at July 25, 2011 8:01 AM

All across America cops and firemen work till 55 or even later before getting a pension.
Are RI cops/firemen so much different that they can retire at 40 or 41?

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at July 25, 2011 8:51 AM

Relax Dan, this is something only firefighters can fully understand.

Posted by: michael at July 25, 2011 9:26 AM

@ michael,

Mike did someone named Dan make a comment? Never saw it.

@ Tommy Cranston:

Do some research. The vast majority of FF's in the USA can retire after 20 or 25 years...not just RI. The facts don't change just because you state otherwise.

Posted by: Tom Kenney at July 25, 2011 9:45 AM

Once again missing the boat. I believe raising taxes was one of three or four things I mentioned as a means of dealing with the problem. Laying the burden on me, telling me "thanks for your service, now screw" seems to be your solution. How about we meet somewhere in the middle?
I don't think the mentality expressed by Michael, Tom Kenney or me is anything that needs to be "lampooned." It shows your immaturity. The things we see and do aren't necessarily heroic but do take a mental and physical toll after 20+ years. I'm not saying "I've done my 20 now pay me", I'm just saying maybe as a tax payer you don't want guys doing these jobs much longer than that.
I wasn't comparing whose job was tougher, I believe you started that when you claimed to see so many horrible things as a prosecutor.

By the way Dan, you didn't take the bait when I said you were probably just a Rule 9 intern. It's not in you to take such an insult without jumping all over me. Was I right?

Posted by: sierra1 at July 25, 2011 6:05 PM

Sierra - I only responded with things I've seen on the job because you spent an entire post on a whole new parade of horribles to match Michael's and then proceeded to tell me that I couldn't understand, a separate fallacy in itself. Your assumptions about me are not correct, as usual, and all of it is irrelevant to the pension discussion. Let's leave it at that.

I agree with you on a great many things. I don't want 65-year-old firefighters out on the trucks. I don't want you and Michael and Tom Kenney to get minimum wage or lose your retirements. These are all ridiculous straw men (for which Tom the caped crusader is mostly responsible) and bear no resemblance to anything that has ever been advocated here. I dare anyone to try to prove otherwise by quoting actual statements.

All I've advocated for is a responsible and sustainable retirement system. The current system, instituted by the unions and a union-majority Labor Board decades ago, is neither of those things. Michael says I am unwilling to compromise - he is a liar and has no evidence to back up this claim. Compromise is precisely what I want to avoid what is now happening in Central Falls. RI taxes are already way too high - #50 out of 50 for business is shameful and embarrassing. The *only* viable solution is that the unions and current pensioners have to accept significantly less money, and common sense reforms also have to be put in place, like restrictions on work after retirement, minimum payout age, and review of disabilities. I understand that this goes against the contracts. The contracts are corrupt and unsustainable and need to be restructured or broken, it's as simple as that. Contrary to union claims, this is not "illegal" (which wrongfully implies criminality, it is a civil matter of contract law). This is exactly how courts will handle it if (when) it comes to that point. I shouldn't have to tell you that pensioners go to the back of the line in bankruptcy proceedings - not a good place to be. Hopefully the union and pensioners will put aside their obstructionist rhetoric and op-eds about dead babies for a moment so that we can get the state back on firm footing for future generations and avoid that scenario. Sucks to what you all feel you're "owed," the state is dying and your unions helped it to its deathbed. Time to set things right for the first time in corrupt, irresponsible Rhode Island history. It is going to be painful. Nobody said it will not be.

Posted by: Dan at July 25, 2011 6:36 PM

Even Left Coast Oakland just raised the FF retirement minimum age to 55-see the article below.
So get ready, it's comin' to a theater near you-LOL.
And all the millions of dollars in BRIBES that the RI FF unions have paid politicians and all the "Firefighters for (fill in name of corrupt politician here)" signs outside the polling places isn't going to count for she-it in bankrupted, busted, broken RI.
Here's the Oakland story:

Firefighters’ union, civilian unions approve cuts in new contracts with city
By: Ryan Phillips | July 8, 2011 – 4:57 pm | Filed Under: Blogs, Community, Crime, Economy, Front, North Oakland Now

The City of Oakland firefighters’ union voted to approve a new contract with the city Thursday, a deal they say will save the city close to $30 million over three years by cutting firefighters’ salaries, among other concessions.

All five of the city unions approved contracts with the city this week, helping shave off $23 million from a $58-million budget gap. All unions agreed to give back approximately nine percent in compensation, according to Mayor Jean Quan. Along with the firefighters’ and police unions, civilian unions Service Employees International Union Local 1021, Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 agreed to contracts.

The contracts we tentatively agreed to last week, when the city passed a budget agreement, but had to be approved by union members. Voting for the firefighters’ union closed last night, with 242 votes in favor of the deal and 104 opposed.

“Any time you to make a concession, you’re not happy about it,” said union president Chuck Garcia. “But we know it helps the city survive, and we know as firefighters and the union leadership, we understand this gives us more protection against cuts in the fire department.”

The new International Association of Firefighters Local 55 contract includes an 8.9 percent pay cut, the loss of two vacation days, freezing the city’s contribution to the union’s dental plan, and moving the retirement age from 50 to 55 for new employees. Firefighters will continue to contribute 13 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. The new contract also gives the city the option of “rolling brownouts”—temporarily closing two stations daily on a rotating basis beginning in July 2012.

In exchange, minimum staffing levels, which were set to expire in 2015, were extended until 2017. The staffing level limits were a part of Measure Y, a 2004 ballot measure intended to help fund police and fire services with a parcel tax and parking surcharge. The measure sets staffing at a level sufficient to operate 25 fire engine companies and seven truck companies. Garcia said that includes four people on each rig and five on the three downtown trucks.

“We’re going to let this happen now because of the economic times,” Garcia said of the concessions, “but we’re going to push that [staffing question] down to 2017 so we can continue to make sure our staffing is where it should be.”

Earlier Thursday, the Oakland Police Officers’ Association also announced its members had voted to approve a deal with the city that includes paying 9 percent of their salaries toward their pensions.

“The significant contributions from all of our employees allow us to preserve city services, help us prepare Oakland for better days and move forward as a city,” Quan said today in a press release.

Layoff notices were also delivered to 68 city employees today, Quan said, as the city’s new budget begins to be implemented.

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at July 25, 2011 7:06 PM


Thank you for your post. Too often we go about your lives not thinking about what others do. Your post about what firefighters/Emts such as Michael and Tom do as a living should be a reminder to the rest of us that we are fortunate to live in a society that provides such services. I am way over due in expressing my gratitude to the emergency workers who responded to my mother's emergency. Unfortunately she did not recover from her stroke, but it does lighten my heart to know that in her last moments of life she was in the care of those rescue workers like Micheal and Tom. To both of you and those like you, THANK YOU.

Posted by: Phil at July 25, 2011 7:28 PM

Phil, thank you, and I'm sorry for your loss.

"Michael says I am unwilling to compromise - he is a liar and has no evidence to back up this claim."

First of all Dan, I never said you are unwilling to compromise. I don't care if you are unwilling to compromise.

Secondly, Dan, who is the liar?

"The horrors of the job might make a good book, nonetheless - the author has his second one coming out soon, also conveniently mentioned within the editorial." Direct quote from Dan

My essay speaks for itself and is entirely appropriate as part of the pension discussion. The last thing I think of when I write something is how the Dan's of the world will react. It just isn't important, and there is too much at stake to be weighed down by egotistical anonymous blog commentators.

You lack credibility, and with each comment you slide from lacking credibility into a parody of the anonymous internet commenter.

But thanks for the plug, the book, Rescue 1, Responding will be available this fall. Let me know how many copies you would like.

Posted by: michael at July 25, 2011 7:57 PM

"My essay speaks for itself and is entirely appropriate as part of the pension discussion."

You're wrong. Dead babies and burned families are not an appropriate part of the pension discussion. It is a shameless emotional appeal and nothing else. See how long the bankruptcy judge lets you continue on with your parade of horribles before she cuts you off. Unfortunately, you are very likely going to be facing that scenario in the near future unless major changes are made. Changes your union is going to fight against with every fiber of its being. As I mentioned already, pensioners go to the back of the line in bankruptcy proceedings. The Central Falls 50% offer doesn't sound quite as bad in light of that eventuality under which you could easily wind up with nothing.

Your op-ed does speak for itself- as evidence that you are so warped by your profession, experiences, and the surrounding culture that you are incapable of contributing to the economic discussion on any meaningful level. You rage against the solutions we offer and call us names, and yet you never offer any solutions of your own. Worst of all, you wear your ignorance of these financial matters are a badge of honor while simultaneously demanding full payment according to your contract. Not going to happen, nor should it under the circumstances, legally or morally. If something cannot continue forever, it will stop - basic economics.

Posted by: Dan at July 25, 2011 10:05 PM

"Dead babies and burned families are not an appropriate part of the pension discussion"

Dan, although callous and insensitive you are right when it comes to the financial side of the pension problem. But I don't think any of us were posting a brief macabre list of memories to prove that point. It goes to the length of service required before your able to retire. No list of death and suffering is going to make the pension system any more solvent.

Posted by: sierra1 at July 25, 2011 11:13 PM

Dan, I think you have an imaginary friend, or enemy named michael. I don't rage against anything, demand anything, or promote my books as part of op/eds I write.

I'll retire when I'm ready, and get my pension and move on. Rant and rave all you want, and blab on about solutions and lack of, but you have no more realistic ideas than I do. If this were the world according to Dan, your ideas might work, and if this were the world according to Michael, my ideas might work, but it isn't either of those things, and like it or not those pesky contracts and promises do mean something, and will be honored, unless the whole government falls apart and we start from scratch.

You like to go on and on about your ideas and solutions here, but nobody is listening, or takes you seriously. I actually pity you, but considering your age and lack of world experience, (if that is even true) think there might be hope, there is always room for growth within a thinking man. You just need to think a little harder.

Posted by: michael at July 26, 2011 2:11 PM
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