Monday, February 17, 2003

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Ponders Municipal Services in Scottsdale

A really local issue this week. I'm giving two talks to service clubs this month on the Bush budget, so my column goes local instead. But speaking about the budget, isn't it just amazing how the very same people who were so darn certain that we needed to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit deficits are now saying that so long as the budget deficit is less than a certain percentage of the size of the economy, it's just peachy?

For those who find asking actual firefighters about the future of emergency services distasteful, I presume it's similarly disturbing to inquire of actual physicians about the future of health care policy?

And yes, the "dog that didn't bark" is from Silver Blaze, not The Hound of the Baskervilles.

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 16, 2003

In investigating the mystery of whether Scottsdale voters should decide to end their city’s fire services contract with Rural/Metro, perhaps we should request the services of that fabled detective, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes might deploy the same deductive powers that he displayed so splendidly in solving the confounding disappearance of the valuable racehorse “Silver Blaze” in 1892:

Colonel Ross, the horse’s owner, asked Holmes, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” Holmes replied.

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Indeed. Holmes learned that a dog was kept in the horse’s stable, and though someone had entered and taken out the horse at night, the dog had not barked. Holmes realized that “the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.” The clue to the mystery was the dog that didn’t bark.

Similarly, as the Scottsdale fire services debate plays out -- with the latest convolution being The Tribune’s inquiry into who might eventually compete (not, as last week’s editorial noted in its best Jerry Seinfeld imitation, that there’s anything wrong with that) for the separate ambulance contract if (a) Rural/Metro loses and (b) can’t make ambulance service work standing alone -- voters instead might want to consider what they’re not hearing.

Current Scottsdale firefighters won’t bad-mouth Rural/Metro. It’s not part of the firefighter culture, and it’s also arguably a violation of each firefighter’s employment contract. Big and not-so-big companies fire, and sue, employees for much less all the time.

But absolutely nothing stops Scottsdale firefighters from volunteering to testify that current service levels, response times, equipment, and facilities are adequate and appropriate. Nobody’s contract prevents them from supporting their employer, and nothing in firefighter culture stops anybody from bragging about their team.

That’s what we don’t seem to be hearing amid all the hubbub about cost, quality, and who’s suing whom. We can’t expect the current firefighters to risk their jobs by taking public stands against their current employer. But if the firefighters thought the status quo was just peachy, they’re totally free to say so. Any political consultant knows that Rural/Metro would put actual Scottsdale firefighters front and center in their battle to keep their contract with the City -- if only they could.

How would an ordinary citizen figure out whether Scottsdale’s 3-on-a-truck staffing, response times, dispatcher and communications systems, and mutual aid arrangements are sufficient? Probably the first thing to do would be to talk with an expert. You wouldn’t want to hear from a finance guy, or rely on the obvious self-interest of a business owner.

If you’re getting advice from the self-interested, you’d want to hear from the firefighters themselves first. Their self-interest -- not just in doing their jobs well, but in staying alive -- is far closer to the public interest than the self-interest of competing businesses. For questions of public safety, instead of hearing from people worried about rates of return on investment, I’d much rather hear from the people willing to risk their necks to save mine.

In a perfect world, Scottsdale voters would research the issues independently and exhaustively. But in our world, people use shortcuts in voting. Those who want government to run more like a business might stop looking once they learned that Pulte Homes recently and quietly terminated Anthem’s contract with Rural/Metro.

Others would want to hear from the firefighters. And if we’re not hearing from them, just think of Sherlock Holmes, who saw the significance of the dog that didn’t bark.

It just might solve this particular mystery, too.

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