Thursday, April 1, 2010

Arson and Layoffs in Flint

On March 24, the city of Flint, Michigan announced that it would be laying off 23 firefighters and 46 police officers the next day.  Within minutes of the press conference, an arson fire broke out in a vacant building.  In the nine days since, there have been nearly 40 such fires,  including five last night alone.  Three firefighters have been injured.  Flint has asked for mutual aid, a system under which cities and towns agree to help each other in an emergency, from other county fire departments.  Now those departments are starting to cancel their mutual aid agreements because they, too, are stretched thin.

No one knows for sure who is starting the fires.  Many have speculated that they are a protest against the layoffs.  Some have gone further and accused firefighters of setting them.  The head of the firefighter's union has said he is truly insulted by that accusation, and that he does not believe the layoffs and the fires are connected at all.  It is always possible that this is a horrible coincidence.

Layoffs can be very distressing to people in any profession.  In a profession, like firefighting, where colleagues are closely knit, it is especially difficult.  Unless you know or are a firefighter, it's difficult to imagine how much these men and women rely on each other and bond together.  Layoffs represent a separation of one or members of, essentially, the family.  It's a grotesque understatement to say that that is bad for morale.

On the other hand, you might expect that firefighters don't mind a string of fires.  After all, putting out fires is what they do.  Most firefighters will tell you, however, that while they like their work and are glad to be able to help the community, they don't actually want there to be a lot of fires.  Like most emergency workers, they like being able to make a difference, but they wish they didn't have to.  What's more, every fire represents a danger to the firefighters who respond.  Any fire could become dangerous or even lethal.  In that sense, every one of the arson fires in Flint is an intentional assault on the fire department.

In addition to the double-whammy of layoffs and the fires, we now have other departments saying that they will not come to Flint to help.  I'm certainly not in a position to criticize those decisions -- every city has to do what makes sense for their people and their community.  To the Flint fire department, however, this just adds insult to injury.  People who go through critical incidents often feel helpless.  The sense of not being able to do anything is horrible.  Asking for help and not getting it greatly complicates the situation.  Imagine someone who is assaulted in broad daylight while passersby ignore it.  Their reaction may have as much to do with being ignored as with the assault.  Now the Flint firefighters are being assaulted repeatedly, and neighboring cities are saying they will no longer help.

I don't know who's setting the fires in Flint, or what their motivation is.  I will say that if they are motivated by support for the firefighters and protest of the layoffs, their actions are truly counter productive.  They have taken a situation that would be hard under the best of circumstances, and escalated it severely.  With friends like this, the firefighters in Flint sure don't need enemies.


Nance said...

In this current national climate where acting out, disinhibition, and lack of restraint are the norm, it grows ever more dangerous. Here's a danger I never would have anticipated, but it fits the prevalent model. When the squeeze of recession, natural resources, climate change, and overpopulation tightened, it was predictable that the natives would get restless and behavioral norms would disintegrate. I guess that's a post I'll be writing. Thanks for this; I'd missed it.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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