Friday, October 30, 2020

Firefighters are fighting financial issues


Volunteer firefighters give an incredible amount of time to saving us from whatever tragic event might befall us -- a house fire, a car accident, an injury, a flooded basement. When the call goes out they leave what they are doing, be it a family picnic or a kid’s baseball game, to do what needs to be done, to do what too few do.


Beyond that devotion of time to the task at hand, there’s also the time invested in preparing to do those things – training, certification, equipment maintenance and more.


Then, there’s something that takes up just as much time, if not more, than all of that service combined, something that’s done out of necessity to continue to provide the services they are: Fundraising.


Your typical homeowner served by a volunteer fire company rarely puts much thought into what volunteers have to do to keep that fire company afloat. They might wrongly assume that since volunteer labor is “free” there must be no cost associated with firefighting.


Oh, how wrong they are.


Volunteers must devote hours and days to holding bingo and meat and gun raffles, while also offering hall rentals and food to weddings and special events, because there are so many costs associated with being there for the community. They include but are not limited to hall maintenance, utilities, investments in and preventive maintenance of firefighting vehicles, various insurance policies, outfitting and upkeep of personal equipment, education, certification and legal fees.


Obviously, with such workloads on the scene and behind the scenes, it’s stressful enough for these men and women to do what they do, day after day, for us in normal times.


Now, throw the COVID pandemic into the mix.


Because of it, local fire companies are in incredibly difficult financial positions. The same lockdowns and protocols that have crippled or closed for good small businesses are also impacting first responders. They haven’t been able to hold raffles, rent their halls, or run bingo. The impacts have been staggering.


Consider the crises faced by two local fire companies.


Gratwick Hose is located in North Tonawanda and is just down the street from my place of business. They are one of six volunteer companies in a city of 30,000 residents that also features 5 paid professional fire stations. Gratwick’s responsibilities are large, as they protect not only residences, but also a handful of factories, special events at Gratwick Park, and accidents that occur on busy River Road. What they do requires a huge investment…one that’s taken a huge hit: Because of the loss of special events, raffles and rentals they’ve lost out on $125,000 in revenues with two months yet to go this year.


Wolcottsville Fire Company is located on the other end of Niagara County. Wollcottsville is a hamlet of around 400 people, but the fire company also serves the adjoining rural area (and a couple thousand more residents) as well as the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area, where searches-and-rescues are often done. The company’s vast district is around 30 square miles in size, so there’s great demand on equipment and people to get the job done. They are down $50,000 on the year, a number certain to grow, especially with their popular December raffle having to go online.


Those are just two fire companies. There are 28 such enterprises in Niagara County alone, and hundreds more across the state. Every one of them, from small towns to small cities, are faced with this financial difficulty.


What are they to do?


The cost of doing business, the cost of doing good, is still there. You just can’t turn off the lights or not turn on the sirens. It’s not as if COVID has stopped fires, car accidents, and general accidents. As a matter of fact, its stressors have increased the demand in certain categories such as overdoses and injuries from domestics that firefighters and their EMS brethren must tend to.


In response to COVID, fire companies everywhere have depleted their rain day funds and bank accounts. They are leaning on any endowments and investments they might have. Their members have been kicking in their own money to help the bottom line.


What can we do as a society to save the savers?


Three things:


One, we can begin to have the conversation with our towns and counties about fully funding fire companies, which we already fund in part through taxes. No one wants to hear about raising property or sales taxes but what basic expectations do you have with local government? It’s typically roads and safety. Fund that critical expectation and we’ll save volunteers from the countless hours of fundraising to keep their higher calling -- and us -- alive.


Secondly, we can demand that Governor Andrew Cuomo release $3 billion in CARES Act and other federal funds that he has held hostage. A billion of that, earmarked for “other” use, could go to counties and towns that were blocked from earlier recovery funding. They could then aid the fire districts.


Lastly, we can give. When some sense of normalcy returns, let’s go back to attending those fun raffles and bingo. In the meantime, we should add to our annual year-end giving donations to our local fire companies. $5. $50. $500. Any amount helps, especially if we all chip in.


Our volunteer fire companies are in need. It’s time we stepped up to help them.


If we don’t, who will be there to help us?     



From the 02 November 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

End the killing of Yellowstone’s bison


Living in a country of such incredible beauty as ours, every one of us has a bucket list of things to see and do in these United States.


Ranking high on many people’s lists is one day visiting Yellowstone National Park. Those of us who want to visit the park hope to see the things that make it so special – like Old Faithful and the vast subalpine forests, and the incredible wildlife such as wolves, elk, antelope, grizzlies, and bison. 


It’s that last animal that intrigues me the most.


Seeing Yellowstone’s healthy herds would transport my thoughts to the days of yore and certainly improve my understanding of their former greatness.


In the early-1800s and before, populations of this magnificent animal numbered 30 million or more across North America. It had to be a sight to see and something to feel – the ground actually shook when vast herds, like a sea of brown, traversed the grasslands.


Now, the bison population is only at a half-million, with just 30,000 available for viewing on public land. Of them, 5,000 can be found at Yellowstone. Those buffalo are special, too: they are genetically perfect, the largest remaining band of wild, pure-bred bison.


Even so, they are marked beasts.


For years, state and federal officials have worked together to cull the Yellowstone herd with licensed hunts and government-run capture and slaughter. Since the 1985, their programs have killed a total of 12,575 Yellowstone buffalo. In the 2020 undertaking alone, more than 500 were killed. It’s thought that 2021’s goal will be something closer to 800 animals.


They conduct these kills every year to keep Yellowstone’s heard at so-called manageable numbers. It is believed that were the bison numbers to grow too much past the goal of 3,000 animals, they would adversely affect the profits of local ranchers who, by the way, are using adjacent public – not private -- lands on which the buffalo herd migrates to and from.


For starters, it is believed that the wild animals would overgraze, taking away precious grasses from the cattle. Secondly, it is assumed that larger bison herds would roam into that ranchland and stay, in turn afflicting cattle with brucellosis…although no occurrence of a bison-to-cattle transmission has ever been recorded. 


Usually this column staunchly defends farmers and ranchers, but I can’t in a case like this where profit ranks higher than wild animals that were supposed to be protected at Yellowstone and the vast tracts of public land that the cattlemen are using. 


This isn’t a practice that’s abnormal to American history, either. In the 1800s, profit was also placed above the natural value of the bison (and the health of Man) when railroad barons and our own federal government ordered the mass execution (even extinction) of the beasts to make good on Manifest Destiny by starving out the Native Americans and/or changing their culture until it was totally unrecognizable.


By 1884, only 25 bison remained in Yellowstone and just 325 in all of what are now the United States. 


Have we not learned from that lesson of government-sponsored population control of beast and man alike?


The current Yellowstone management (massacre?) plan has to come to an end. But, it’s difficult to make an impact in a state where the cattle industry has greater lobbying power and influence than its citizens. Various conservation organizations have tried to change public policy to no avail. Lawmakers have turned a deaf ear to those who’d like to see the bison prosper. Lawsuits against the cull have gone nowhere.


Hopefully, recent successful undertakings by the Buffalo Field Campaign, a non-profit bison advocacy group, change all that.


They have been fighting with various government entities to have documents released under the Freedom of Information Act that have shown, and will likely show in greater detail upon further release, federal plans to actually manage these bison like cattle on a ranch, further controlling their numbers and dictating their forage, rather than letting them roam and flourish like the protected, important wild animals they are.


If their ongoing efforts continue to produce a trove of damning documents it would really cement future litigation against Yellowstone’s leaders, the Department of the Interior and other government agencies. This could strengthen attempts to list plains bison as threatened, ensuring more appropriate, respectful, and caring management tactics that these magnificent beasts deserve.



From the 26 October 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News    

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Fostering diversity in the workplace


In response to social unrest taking place across the country, countless corporations issued statements citing the need for change, whether in society or within their domain. Much of that was little more than marketing, playing to the masses to look good and gain favor.


But, many organizations, especially small businesses because of their more direct and real connection to people, have legitimately become focused on improving the diversity of their employees and customers in an effort to be better corporate and individual citizens.


To those actually attempting to change and do good, it can seem like a daunting task: How do you efficiently and effectively change the culture in your company, community and country?


It’s a question that’s been posed to me often. Whenever we give group tours at the plant – whether it’s Leadership Niagara, college classes, or homeschoolers – the debriefing at the end usually features attendees mentioning how different our workplace looks. My team is 40% diverse in a city that’s 4% diverse, a county that’s 14%. There are 7 countries of birth here as well as 5 religions, multiple ethnicities, and 180 men and women working together. It’s a melting pot.


When I respond to them about how we do it and how it works, it’s best identified by what we might call the Four Es of Diversity: Education, enlightenment, engagement, and empowerment.


In any organization, it all starts at the top. Leaders have to know their people, their consumers, and their communities. You have to educate yourself on the world around you whether directly (personal inquiry of marginalized populations and/or volunteer service in the trenches) or indirectly (consuming and thoughtfully analyzing local, national and global news). You have to understand the nuances of humanity, the background of each person and the world from which they came. Leaders – and their organizations – are well served by inquisitiveness and a hunger for knowledge.


Once those in leadership possess the understanding, it must be shared. Enlighten others. When we began to have Burmese refugees working at the plant I educated my entire workforce on where they came from and the incredible atrocities they faced in Myanmar. That served to inspire others to help our new friends pursue the American Dream. And, in those earlier-mentioned plant tours, I often speak of the woes faced by men of color who came from prison and need employment and deserve a second chance at life typically not or slowly provided by society. Mentioning how many former convicts are at the plant and how they’ve risen above their pasts shows other employers that they, too, can “ban the box” on their application forms. 


This all leads to engagement. Once people have even a rudimentary understanding of who other people really are and where they came from, you can foster teamwork. You want people from different populations working and interacting together, rather than seeking their comfort level and assembling only in the social groups that they know and understand outside of work. In many workplaces, employees naturally gravitate towards inter-racial, intercultural comradery in order to address the tasks at hand. If not, it’s up to the employer to create environments in which there is such collaboration. One recent moment at the plant reassured the value of engagement to me: 4 of my coworkers were working together on a machine, 4 different native tongues, all speaking perfect or broken English, laughing together and working hard – it showed perfectly why we do what we do.


With all of the other Es under your belt you then have an environment that can encourage empowerment. For many, having a secure job with benefits is empowerment enough. Others hunger for more, and just as you would based on anyone else’s merit and drive, you should provide that opportunity. In my workplace we have a Korean-American plant manager, Black men in plant floor management and support, and minorities working in our skilled trades. They are in those roles for the same reason someone with my skin color would be: They proved their worth, their mettle and their value to the team.


You’ll notice that I don’t believe in a fifth E as a tool, one that other leaders dig: Enumeration. Many organizations will set quotas and goals for hiring and advancement. We don’t. It’s dehumanizing, treating a person as a number and not as an individual. It’s disingenuous and contrived, pushing idealism to meet a statistical goal rather than creating interactive diversity because it’s the right thing to do, the normal thing to do. Let diversity grow naturally by focusing on the other Es and you’ll be surprised at what can be achieved when you’re being genuine and not chasing numbers. 


2020 has served as a wake-up call for many people and companies when it comes to social justice, diversity and inclusion. There’s work to be done and it’s good work -- and it can improve how you work. Consider these 4 Es and how they can be implemented in your workplace to make it -- and our world – a better place.



From the 19 October 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News