Firefighter Tragedy

There aren’t many jobs that require more bravery than being a firefighter.  You risk your life to try to save those in danger, battling a blaze that could take the floor from under you or burst unexpectedly through a wall.  When your job is fighting wildfires, when wind conditions can shift suddenly and fires can leap quickly from tree to tree, the risks are even greater.

So it was yesterday in Arizona, when 19 firefighters — 19! — were killed while trying to contain a huge wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona.  It’s the largest loss of firefighters in a single day since 9/11.

The firefighters were part of an experienced, elite unit that was attempting to clear brush to prevent the spread of the fire.  The members of the unit were equipped with the latest technology, including special fire retardant blankets that are designed to allow firefighters to dig a hole, crouch in, cover themselves with the blanket, and hope that the fire burns over the top of the blanket without harming them.  Yesterday, though, something happened.  The fire turned, caught the firefighters in the wrong position, and the result was disaster.  Some of the dead firefighters were found beneath their fire blankets, but the heat and flames were too intense for the technology.  It must have been a terrifying and horrible way to go.  Two members of the unit somehow survived and are being treated for severe burns.

The Yarnell fire was started by lightning, during a period of intense heat in the desert southwest.  It’s a natural occurrence that probably has been happening for thousands of years.  The difference is that now people are building houses in those arid hills, and when fires start they expect firefighters to try to stop the fires and save their homes.  Every summer, we read about wildfires threatening communities in California, Arizona, Nevada, and other states in the western U.S.

When a tragedy like this occurs, and so many people die, I wonder:  why are we allowing people to build houses in places that are regularly exposed to wildfires, and why are we asking courageous firefighters, and their families, to run deadly risks as a result?  Wouldn’t it be prudent to reexamine our western land use policies, rather than regularly mourning the loss of some of our bravest citizens who died trying to protect homes that should not have been built in the first place?

The Issue 2 Onslaught And The Firefighters’ Brigade

In Ohio, you can’t watch a football game without seeing commercials, pro and con, on Issue 2.  The ad onslaught, funded by well-heeled groups on both sides of the issue, has begun in earnest, and the election is still six weeks away.

State Issue 2 is a public referendum on various public employee issues.  A “yes” vote would uphold SB 5, legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly earlier this year that limits certain collective bargaining rights of public employees, requires public employees to contribute at least 15 percent of their health insurance premiums and 10 percent of pension contributions, and make a number of additional changes.  A “no” vote on Issue 2 would overturn that law.

The big question right now is whether the flood of commercials will advance meaningful public knowledge about Issue 2 and its impact.  Would an affirmation of SB 5 cripple public employee rights and put public safety at risk, as opponents claim?  Or, would the approval of SB 5 give cash-strapped state and local governments the flexibility to save money while maintaining public services, as its proponents contend?

So far, the ads I’ve seen suggest that Issue 2 is all about firefighters and the staff members who work for Ohio’s 33 state senators.  Of course, that is not the case.  Firefighters are attractive subjects of TV commercials, but they represent a small fraction of the public employees who would be affected by SB 5.  According to an article earlier this year in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, there are nearly 650,000 state and local government employees in Ohio; in Cuyahoga County alone there are more than 76,000 local government employees.  In contrast, Cleveland, the largest local government in Cuyahoga County, employs 900 firefighters.

I’d like to see commercials that get beyond firefighters and Ohio Senate staffers and get to the heart of the issues on Issue 2.  Under our current scheme, how do public employees really fare versus those working in the private sector?  How much money could state and local governments reasonably expect to save if SB 5 is affirmed?  What abuses, if any, should cause us to change the current approach toward public employees?  If voters are to be informed about the merits of Issue 2, those are the kinds of questions that need to be answered.