Treasurer’s Report
By Tom O'Connor, Treasurer
“Cultures, once tampered with, are nearly impossible to reclaim.” Kevin Hobson, The Indian Caste System and the British.

In the late 1960’s it became fashionable in the American education system to teach middle school students about the Indian caste system, a rigid social structure that divided Indian society into different castes, or strata, based on family lineage and income or occupation. These rigid castes were used to show students the beauty of the American political system, which lacks impenetrable social classes. It was taught to show students that in America, someone like Horatio Alger could overcome all boundaries and rise to the top.

Unfortunately, a modern day EMS caste system has been recently imposed upon the San Francisco Fire

Department, and its effects are likely to destroy nearly 175 years of Fire Department culture. Most at risk from this caste system, are the cultural values of teamwork, camaraderie and the time honored tradition of different ranks interacting, and working together, as equals.

Although outlawed in 1947, the Indian caste system still exists in modern day India and provides a sarcastic framework that may be used to explain the persisting difficulties of the EMS merger with the San Francisco Fire Department. The Indian castes and their SFFD parallels are as follows:

The Brahmanas - In Indian society, this caste is composed of the high priests and intellectuals. In the SFFD/EMS scheme of things, this would be the Emergency Medical Services Agency (EMSA) and the meddling doctors from the Department of Public Health, both of which insist upon developing policies for the SFFD, without any knowledge or experience of Fire Department practices and traditions. (An example of this would be a recent policy paper from the EMSA that created a guidebook for a Weapon of Mass Destruction scenario, written by someone who has never spent a single day of his life on a fire engine or truck. All it did was advocate for more management positions outside of the existing Incident Command System.)

The Ksatriyas - This caste is composed of the kings and the military that administer society according to the directions of the Brahmanas. The parallel for SFFD/EMS purposes would be the EMS Section Chiefs, who implement the policies of the EMSA as well those of Doctors Katz, Brown and Isaacs without any regard to the practicality or efficiency of those policies.

The Vaisyas - Principally responsible for the production of food and the protection of cows, this layer of the Indian caste system also gives guidance to the Ksatriyas. In the SFFD, this caste level could present the most danger to preserving Fire Department culture. The Vaisyas caste in the SFFD is represented by the statisticians employed by the Presidio who toil endlessly to protect the EMS turf. Comprised of Rescue Captains and light duty medics, this group provides endless data propping up this failed merger, justifying the quadrupling of management, and in effect, protecting the sacred cows of the EMS merger. The sacred cows being more management, more money and of course, more management.

The Sudras - Considered to have little intelligence, this caste engages in the service of the other three classes. For the EMS, this would be the lowly paramedics who have been working in a broken system for over 6 years. The paramedics have been promised the world and given nothing ... their tours are routinely changed, the ambulances they ride on are overworked, and they only get token time spent on engines. Most recently they were denied opportunities to get properly trained on trucks and become actual San Francisco firefighters. Without proper training and probationary testing, the paramedics will never be fully accepted into the Fire Department culture. And in the event of a promotional exam, they will never be accepted as bosses if they never were trained as San Francisco firefighters. Often the focal point for the hostilities this SFFD/DPH merger has created, they are not to blame. The blame rests squarely on the management structure, or castes, above them.

The Harijan (the untouchables) - The Harijans are so lowly, they are considered even below the Indian caste system, and are often only mentioned as an aside when castes are discussed. The untouchables have dirty jobs that often involve the handling of waste, sweat and feces. The parallel in the SFFD would be the lowly firefighter riding on the rig. Often only mentioned as an aside during high-level policy discussions, the firefighter has been ignored over the past 6 years, and the Presidio has missed winning over the hearts and minds of the very people involved in implementing the merger. The most recent slap in the face to the untouchables, or firefighters, was the comments by Dr. Marshall Isaacs before the Fire Commission, when he claimed that the most important challenge facing the Fire Department in the upcoming fiscal crunch was to save the EMS management structure. Keeping engines, trucks and ambulances fully staffed was not the most important thing, reducing run times for ambulances to improve patient care was not the most important thing, saving firefighter/paramedics from injury through proper SFFD training was not the most important thing ... saving the EMS management structure was the most important thing.

While the above comparison between the Indian caste system and the modern day San Francisco Fire Department may have been a stretch, and a sarcastic one at that, the development of a more stratified department and the threat that poses to Fire Department culture is very real. By pushing forward with a merger that ignores the central tenets of Fire Department culture, the EMS division’s heavy handed approach has only created more problems for the Fire Department to go forward and change the services it delivers.

What has been most appalling to all those involved in the SFFD/DPH merger is the continual downgrading of the importance of fire suppression, and the cultural values that surround that practice. Cultural values such as teamwork and camaraderie, which seem to flourish in an environment such as the fireground, all but disappear when the EMS section sends out Rescue Captains to be technical observers of medical calls instead of assistants to aid the patient. There are a great number of Rescue Captains that view themselves as coworkers and show up at medical calls to help, but there are far too many who only observe and evaluate ... a major cultural snafu. Firefighters, lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs and the whole host of Chiefs in the SFFD do not show up at fires or medicals to observe and evaluate, they show up to work. In the Fire Department there is no observing, when you show up at the firehouse, you check your ego at the door, roll up your sleeves and pitch in.

And now with this caste system nearly entrenched in our workplace, it appears that the equality of the firehouse, where all ranks work together as near equals, could possibly disappear. By implementing more and more policies and position papers that view the firefighter and firefighter/paramedic as mere worker bees in the grand plan, and by allowing non-SFFD personnel to develop those policies, a completely stratified SFFD is being created. And by the looks of it so far, it doesn’t work too well. And at the very least, it does not create a harmonious workplace.


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