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As we know, the economists and statisticians over the last decade have been presenting a different view of firefighting that has been embraced by a lot of jurisdictions across the country. The findings of the academics are often pushed forward by those who believe in smaller government and/or large reductions in the taxes we pay.
For some departments it has meant a reinvention into what this article by Leon Neyfakh in the Ideas section of The Boston Globe calls “all-purpose urban response squads”. Other departments have been able to mostly hold the line and continue in the roles defined by the long tradition of firefighting. But many of those are doing so with a lot fewer firefighters and resources.
Whether we like anything in this article or not, it is the reality of the 21st Century and a force that most departments have dealt with or are dealing with in some form or another. Being prepared to address all of these issues is a crucial role of labor leaders and the modern fire chief, whether career or volunteer.
But there are some things that this article and the statistics don’t seem to address. Whether a department handles one fire or 500 fires in a year there still needs to be a force of firefighters well trained and well equipped to handle the fire. That costs money and also requires a commitment of resources and time. In addition, there should be a moral obligation to provide for a reasonable level of resources to help ensure the safety of the firefighters you do have.
It’s a concept few citizens and politicians understand. Many elected officials are willing to roll the dice in this area of public safety because they know the public, for the most part, is just happy that a fire truck shows up and a warm body emerges. It only becomes a concern after a large or deadly fire occurs and news coverage shows the fire department was not equipped, staffed or trained to handle the emergency. Then everyone asks, “What happened?”.
I don’t want anyone to think that I believe fire departments and firefighters don’t need to evolve with the times. They do. But to me it isn’t evolution if the change means the basics of effectively fighting fires and saving lives are lost in the process. That’s just a giant step backwards as a society.
Here’s how Nyfalk’s article begins. I encourage you to read it in it’s entirety:
Is there such a thing as too many heroes?
Walking past a neighborhood fire station can be one of the most deeply reassuring experiences of city life—a reminder that there are people in our midst ready to pull on their helmets and stride into danger whenever and where something goes wrong.
But as a recent Globe story reported, city records show that major fires are becoming vanishingly rare. In 1975, there were 417 of them. Last year, there were 40. That’s a decline of more than 90 percent. A city that was once a tinderbox of wooden houses has become—thanks to better building codes, automatic sprinkler systems, and more careful behavior—a much less vulnerable place.
As this has happened, however, the number of professional firefighters in Boston has dropped only slightly, from around 1,600 in the 1980s to just over 1,400 today. The cost of running the department, meanwhile, has increased by almost $43 million over the past decade, and currently stands at $185 million, or around 7.5 percent of the city’s total budget.
The trend in Boston is part of a striking nationwide phenomenon. The number of career firefighters per capita in the United States is essentially unchanged since 1986, but of the roughly 30 million calls America’s fire departments responded to in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, only about 1.4 million were fire-related—down by more than 50 percent since 1981, according to the National Fire Protection Association. And while the total number of calls being routed to fire departments is higher than it’s ever been, only 5 percent of them are fire related. Most had to do with medical emergencies like heart attacks and car accidents. As a popular economics blog put it, alongside a graph based on the statistics, “Firefighters don’t fight fires.”