Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What do firefighters do?

Tyler Cowen had an interesting post up last week on his Marginal Revolution blog, noting that the number of career firefighters in the U.S. has increased 40% over the last 35 years, even as the incidence of fire calls has gone down by roughly that same percentage (largely because of improved building codes and increased usage of smoke alarms).

What are the firefighters doing, then? Mostly they're tagging along with ambulances on car accident calls and other miscellaneous medical emergencies. Cowen cites a 10-year-old article from Fred McChesney, the facts of which almost certainly still apply today.
Taxpayers are unlikely to support budget increases for fire departments if they see firemen lolling about the firehouse. So cities have created new, highly visible jobs for their firemen. The Wall Street Journal reported recently, “In Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, for example, 90% of the emergency calls to firehouses are to accompany ambulances to the scene of auto accidents and other medical emergencies. Elsewhere, to keep their employees busy, fire departments have expanded into neighborhood beautification, gang intervention, substitute-teaching and other downtime pursuits.” In the Illinois township where I live, the fire department drives its trucks to accompany all medical emergency vehicles, then directs traffic around the ambulance—a task which, however valuable, seemingly does not require a hook-and-ladder.
Interesting stuff. For a graphical representation of the effect described above, Cowen passed along this chart:

When you see trends like this, it's hard to argue that fire departments really need to be as expansive as they have become. And with state and local budgets coming under more pressure by the day, don't be surprised if there are increasing calls to cut back on firefighters (and maybe return to volunteer fire departments?). It doesn't take a trained firefighter (or a large and expensive fire truck) to direct rubbernecking traffic around a wreck, and we really can't afford to pretend that it does.

[Marginal Revolution]

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