MIAMI — Caring for the homeless is traditionally the domain of soup kitchens, churches, and the social-service agencies in many American cities. But in Miami, the helping hands have callouses from hauling canvas hoses.
Here and in a host of fire stations across the country, a quiet revolution is under way: firefighters are taking on a surprising array of government duties that have little or nothing to do with their traditional activities.
"The citizens are basically our customers," says Miami fire chief Carlos Gimenez. "We try to run ourselves like a private company."
In Miami, the fire department handles the city's cable television franchise contracts, employee risk management (injuries and liability), and homeless services, in addition to dousing fires and providing emergency medical and rescue services. In Denver, firefighters read bedtime stories and tutor at-risk youngsters. In Charlotte, N.C., they build ramps onto disabled homes and host station birthday parties for inner-city kids.
Firefighters have a long tradition of public-service activities during "down" time between fires. But the latest moves go well beyond fixing bicycles and being good neighbors. For a variety of reasons, fire chiefs are assuming more responsibility and city managers with pinched budgets are more than happy to share it.
The motive is "as much fiscal as it is interest in reinventing government," says Michael Pagano, a political science professor at Miami of Ohio in Oxford, Ohio.
In a sense, fire departments have done their traditional job too well: Response times and fire death rates have fallen dramatically. Better building codes and smoke detectors have also contributed to a decrease in the amount of time spent fighting fires. Today, more than half of all calls to urban fire departments are for emergency medical service, not fire suppression.
So, firefighters in many cities are responding to another kind of emergency rescue call, this time for themselves: How do they make themselves useful in a time when their traditional mission is less time consuming?
Fire and police budgets are a major portion of city expenditures. In a time of shrinking public dollars, the move makes sense, says Pagano. "Taxpayers are looking for more evidence that their cities are producing at an efficient level."
Some departments have taken advantage of their proximity to high-crime sites to expand their functions. "We have a firehouse in every neighborhood," says Rick Gonzales, Denver's fire chief. "We have a mandate to make sure that neighborhoods are safe."
In Denver, firefighters have expanded into social services. They received training in counseling and working with at-risk students who drop by the firehouse after school for help. The firefighters use the "Hooked on Phonics" program as one model.
Some new functions come from either employee suggestions or community requests, Mr. Gonzales says. A new station was recently built, with residents choosing everything down to the color of the brick and roof style. "The community built it," he says.
In Miami, firefighters received the homeless responsibility, including managing a staff of 25, after several fighters fed the homeless in the streets at Christmastime.
In Charlotte, firefighters have bought into the notion of citizen outreach by making contracts with schools to clean baseball diamonds, tutor and coach students. "We have to get out of that mold that we're just a service to put out fires," says chief Luther Fincher, Jr. "The citizens are our shareholders. We're looking for more ways to provide more with less."
In fact, public-service projects are mandatory for Charlotte firefighters within a year of each promotion.
DENVER chief Gonzales wants his department's role to include more crime intervention and to perform municipal functions like a neighborhood city hall, pushing government services out of the downtown government buildings. If a softball team needs a permit, "Why not let the firehouse issue park permits?" he asks.
Gonzales acknowledges that giving some of the functions, such as crime control, to his department is a "hard sell - you've had hundreds of years of turf indoctrination."
But, he says, the public wants accountability. "Who cares who does it as long as it gets done?"
So far, however, much seems to depend on the individual fire chiefs. And some firefighters balk at the extra, nontraditional duties.
But in Miami, the firefighters' union, the chief, and the city manager are in sync. The expansion of the fire department's functions began after Gimenez's department coordinated emergency services after hurricane Andrew swept through the city in 1992.
"He saw we were a can-do department," says Gimenez.
#Increasing fiscal constraints will pressure more governments to use their resources more efficiently, said Pagano. For many fire departments, the message is clear: "As we head into the next millennium, we're having to learn to change," says Fincher. "We're looking for more ways to provide more with less."