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Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

Phone: 503-823-4682

fax: 503-823-4019

1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204

To Fire & Rescue and Water Bureau Employees: Hello-- and thank you for saving lives

January 25, 2013


Dear Fire & Rescue and Water Bureau Employees,

I just wanted to write to say how honored I am to be - even if only for a few weeks - the Commissioner in Charge of the Fire & Rescue and Water Bureaus. I was going to send a separate email to employees of each Bureau, but then it occurred to me that, in a way, you're all in the same business. You're all in the business of saving lives. For that I thank you, and am honored to be associated with you. Also - as you'll see at the end of this email - I have a small suggestion as to something each of us might do that will save some more lives.

I'm sure each of you knows the life-saving story of your own Bureau, but you might want to check out the statistics for your colleagues in the other Bureau. Going alphabetically, I'll start with Fire. According to FEMA, fire deaths in the United States have declined by more than two-thirds just since 1979, from 34 per million to 11 per million. In Oregon, we do even better than that: 7.8 per million. Stronger building codes (and enforcement of those codes), smoke alarms, and the tireless efforts of our firefighters have dramatically reduced the threat of fire to Americans, Oregonians and Portlanders.

And, of course, especially in recent years, firefighters have taken on an enormous life-saving load of non-fire medical calls - 40,000 in Portland last year. Heart attacks, injuries, diabetics in crisis. We spend 17 percent of gross national product on the health care industry in this country; you'd think that would reduce the number of health emergencies. But it hasn't. And the consequence of the failure of that massive spending on health care to reduce the number of health emergencies is to give firefighters an ever-rising medical workload ... which you have shouldered calmly, professionally, and effectively. Thank you.

Now to the Water Bureau. I think most Portlanders know that firefighters are in the life-saving business; I'm not sure they view the Water Bureau the same way. But the Water Bureau IS in the life-saving business. Here's what the Water Quality and Health Council says:

At the start of the twentieth century, high mortality rates and substandard living conditions were commonplace in urban America. Mortality rates in major cities were substantially higher than in rural areas, a phenomenon known as the "urban penalty." Yet by 1940, mortality rates had declined by a full 40 percent, mostly due to a reduction in infectious diseases. In addition, the urban penalty had largely disappeared, with life expectancy rising from 47 to 63 years.

What fostered this rapid and revolutionary change, the most dramatic reduction in mortality ever recorded in the United States? There has been much debate on this question, but relatively little empirical data provide a verifiable answer. However, a new study by two Harvard University researchers, David Cutler of the Department of Economics and Grant Miller of the Health Policy Program, finds the most compelling root cause for the drop in U.S. mortality rates in the twentieth century was the adoption of treatment technologies for public drinking water supplies.

In their recent article, "The Role of Public Health Improvements in Health Advances: The Twentieth Century United States," Cutler and Miller conclude that clean water technologies, filtration and chlorination, were responsible for nearly half of the total mortality reduction in major cities between 1900 and 1936, with even greater impact on infant and child mortality rates during that same time period. Significantly, these technologies led to the near-eradication of typhoid fever, the waterborne disease that was one of the major scourges of that era.

So, according to these researchers, the existence of clean, safe, reliable urban water systems such as Portland's may have increased life expectancy by as much as 16 years. Thank you, Water Bureau employees!

Now, if you've read this far, you might remember that I said at the start of this email that I would have a suggestion as to how to save some more lives. It's this. Please get your blood pressure checked, and urge your loved ones to get their blood pressure checked. And if it's high, get it under control. It could save your life or a loved one's life. Less dramatically, but still importantly, it could reduce the cost of health care to the City and make more money available to the City to preserve high-quality services.

According to a New York Times editorial a few months ago, 30 million Americans have uncontrolled high blood pressure even though they have health insurance. That's one in ten Americans - so it probably includes some of you. That puts them at risk for heart attacks, strokes and kidney failure. And it's unnecessary. Many of us can control high blood pressure through diet and exercise - but even for those of us who can't, blood pressure medication is effective and (unlike, say, triple bypass surgery) really cheap.

I am told that each fire station has blood pressure-checking equipment, and that the Water Bureau has blood pressure monitors on the 6th floor of the Portland Building and Interstate, and will shortly acquire equipment at Headworks, Lusted and Sandy River Station.

I offer this advice, by the way, as an overweight middle-aged guy who, over the past decade, has had moderately high blood pressure. Every time I went to the doctor, he told me it was a bit high. I kept on saying, OK, I'll eat better and exercise. But I didn't. Finally, I started taking the pills. Now, my blood pressure's under control. Recently, since my fiancee' got me a pedometer and we got a dog, I actually have been exercising more: walking to meet my target number of steps and walking because, well, the dog has to be walked. So perhaps my blood pressure would be OK even without the pills. I might try to figure that out this year. But I won't go back to ignoring it. It's too big a risk to take - and I don't want to unnecessarily add to those sky-high medical costs that burden the whole country generally and the City budget specifically.

Okay, I've gone on long enough. But again ... thank you, thank you, thank you for the vital, life-saving work you do.


My very best regards,

Commissioner Steve Novick

City of Portland, Oregon

Lincoln on Government

by Steve Novick-- The following is adapted from a piece of mine that the Register-Guard was kind enough to print a few years ago:

Abraham Lincoln is, of course, best known as the first Presidential candidate to win Oregon. (As you know, we became a state in 1859 – and we made the right choice.) Then of course there was that whole business of freeing the slaves and winning the Civil War. But Abraham Lincoln should also be remembered as one of America’s most eloquent explainers and defenders of the role of government.

In a July 1854 essay, Lincoln wrote:

“Why … should we have government? Why not each individual take to himself the whole fruit of his labor, without having any of it taxed away?” He answered his own question: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for the people whatever they need to have done, but which they can not do, at all, or can not do, so well, for themselves – in their separate and individual capacities … There are many such things … roads, bridges and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; common schools … the criminal and civil [justice] departments.”
In the same essay, Lincoln made this observation: “The best framed and best administered governments are necessarily expensive.” In other words: in government, as in life, you get what you pay for. That seemed obvious to Lincoln – but today, most supporters of government services would probably be too scared to be that blunt.

Lincoln’s views on taxation were somewhat out of sync with modern Republicanism; he thought that the wealthier members of society should pay a good deal of the cost of government. As President he enacted a progressive income tax. As an Illinois state legislator in 1839, he defended a proposed tax increase this way: “I believe it can be sustained, as it does not increase the tax upon the ‘many poor,’ but upon the ‘wealthy few.’”

He added, with a touch of mischief:

“The wealthy can not justly complain, because the change is equitable … If, however, the wealthy should, regardless of the justness of the complaint, as men often are, when interest is involved, complain of the change, it is still to be remembered, that they are not sufficiently numerous to carry the elections.”
Smart guy, that Lincoln.

Originally posted on on Feb. 12, 2009

Photo credit: Smithsonian