The San Francisco Fire Department’s “dirty little secret”
By Tom O’Connor, Treasurer
In a recent interview, Mayor Gavin Newsom called drinking in the firehouse the “fire department’s dirty little secret” after a Battalion Chief tested positive for alcohol use. What was most galling about that comment is that the fire department’s “dirty little secret” isn’t drug or alcohol abuse ... the “dirty little secret” is that firefighters are no different from American society as a whole. Firefighter’s have all of the faults, weaknesses, addictions and other dysfunctional tendencies that plague our culture in this modern age. In fact, the real “dirty little secret” is that when firefighters fall from grace, they are now subject to a public shaming that is reminiscent of the Pilgrim era when “sinners” were forced to wear scarlet letters or locked up in the public stockade.
There is a very fine line between the “heroic” and the “average”, yet why does the hero have to fall farther then the average person when they stumble? Why are the personal battles of public safety employees suddenly public fodder for politicians to grandstand about? How has San Francisco, the very city that stands for second chances, become so intolerant for human shortcomings?

While no one is condoning the use of drugs or alcohol by public safety employees, special consideration should be made to recognize the nature of the job and the personal toll it can take on individuals. When San Franciscan’s worst nightmares become realized, they simply have to dial 911. Firefighters and police respond to these calls daily and perform their job admirably. But what effect can this daily “grind” have on a person? How can you measure the effect of over 235,000 emergency calls for the fire department in the last year alone? How hard is it to be a firefighter in the 7th busiest fire department in the nation? How hard is it to balance the rigors of daily life ... bills, marriage, child rearing, elder care ... with a job as stressful as that of a firefighter? How much human suffering must be witnessed before special consideration is made for any personal failings?

It took over 10 years for Vietnam veterans to have “post-traumatic stress syndrome” entered into the lexicon of the medical community. Prior to that it was called “shell shock” and treatment called for a swift slap across the face and a new assignment to the front lines. When public safety employees encounter stress at work, they often take it home and try to bury it. Study after study has shown that police and firefighters have the highest rates of stress, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as an abnormally short life expectancy rate.

Yet in San Francisco, these statistics are never mentioned in the media coverage. Headlines in local newspapers don’t scream about divorce and broken families. The evening news doesn’t profile the stress levels faced by firefighters. Lengthy articles don’t examine the giant cancer cluster currently working its way through the ranks of both active and retired firefighters. No, the news media only focuses on the personal tribulations of a few, and then applies these generalizations to the whole.

Both the San Francisco Fire and Police Department’s have long been known to have outstanding Stress Units that focus primarily on the perils of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as crisis counseling when things get particularly gruesome in our unique work environment. In fact, after the trauma of 9/11 the New York City Fire Department requested that the San Francisco Stress counselors travel to lower Manhattan to help firefighters deal with all of their difficulties.

In the past, it was the job of the SFFD Stress Unit to quietly assist those with drug and alcohol addiction and get them the appropriate treatment necessary to overcome their problems and return to both their families and their jobs. For over twenty years, the Stress Unit repaired broken lives and maintained the public trust in both the Police and Fire Departments. Sadly enough, in the most recent round of budget cuts, the SFFD Stress Unit was cut by a third, and just barely saved from extinction by the bureaucrat’s axe.

Now with the Stress Unit cut dramatically, and emergency calls increasing exponentially, the fire department has become a target for moral grandstanding. While most San Francisco departments have added employees over the last decade, the fire department has cut jobs consistently. In fact, 4,000 new jobs were added to the City payroll in the last few years, while the fire department cut over 100 positions. During this same period the number of emergency calls per firefighter increased dramatically. There is no City department more “efficient” than the SFFD. But at what price does this “efficiency” come? How many calls must a fire engine, ambulance or truck go on before someone says enough? Why isn’t this “dirty little secret” bandied about in the press?

The real facts aren’t presented because of a variety of factors ... the current fire department administration is focused primarily on damage control, the administration does not have the ability to get the proper message out, and the enemies of the current administration are very adept at spreading mistruths about the department.

Last year, a disgruntled firefighter served on a Civil Grand Jury and reportedly influenced that body to report that drinking in San Francisco firehouses was “open and notorious.” Most recently, a lawsuit was filed that called drinking in San Francisco firehouses “open and notorious”, citing the Grand Jury report. Oddly enough, one of the parties on this lawsuit was the very same firefighter who served on the Grand Jury. For all of the accusations hurled at the fire department, and all of the investigations initiated, only one thing has become apparent ... firefighters are no different than the population as a whole. In fact, firefighters are susceptible to the same problems as the people who dial 911 are. What is different though, is the manner in which these problems receive scrutiny in the media.

In a recent interview with KCBS, Chief Hayes-White defended the department very adequately. However, at one point in the interview, the reporter said there was a big difference between an accountant who had an alcohol problem and a firefighter. What wasn’t mentioned by the Chief was the root cause of the alcohol problem and the immense difference between balancing figures on a spreadsheet and balancing life and death out on the street. What wasn’t mentioned was the difference between using a calculator and using a defibrillator. What wasn’t mentioned was that the very nature of the job firefighters do takes a very high toll on individuals and while we don’t deserve a “free pass” for our transgressions, we do deserve a small measure of the same understanding of the human condition that we provide everyday while doing our job.

In the novel “The Scarlet Letter” Hester Pyrne was forced to wear a scarlet “A” for adultery on her clothing during the Puritan community centuries ago. The writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was trying to make the case that judgment of others served no place in a nation based on tolerance. In the current climate of our City, it appears as if firefighters are being forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” for alcoholism, not adultery. Yet no one is looking into the root causes that might have led to this disease. Nor is anyone acknowledging the fact that this City was never based on a culture of judgment.

San Francisco has always been a city of understanding and tolerance ... a City that allowed men and women a second chance to redeem themselves ... a City based on the teachings of St. Francis and his understanding of human nature and its inherent frailties. It seems as if our fair city has lost it’s bearing if the difficulties faced by individuals are used by politicians seeking to claim the moral high ground. It would appear that if the faults of a few men and women are all that is necessary to condemn an institution like the San Francisco Fire Department, then perhaps San Francisco has forgotten how to read its own moral compass.

Day in and day out, the San Francisco Fire Department answers the calls of those in need. Who answers our call during our time of need? Who has the temerity to stand up and help firefighters with the real “dirty little secret”? Who indeed claims the moral high ground when those who help others need help themselves?


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