Paid Firefighters: A Cost-Effective Choice
By Edward Kelly and Joseph Fleming
In a recent editorial in the Washington Post(1), Professor Fred McChesney questions the value of paid fire departments, particularly unionized fire departments. He has written similar Op-eds in the past(2). Due to the credibility provided by the editorial board of the Washington Post, local papers might pick up this editorial.
To assist local fire authorities in developing a response, we have analyzed Professor McChesney’s editorial, and have listed several resources and Internet links that can be used to supplement the information in this analysis. Since so many of Professor McChesney’s arguments are derived from a single National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report, we would suggest that those who are interested download the report and read it for themselves(3).
“Rapid improvements in fire safety have caused a dramatic drop in the number of blazes, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Buildings are constructed with fire-resistant materials; clothing and curtains are made of flame-retardant fabrics; and municipal laws mandate sprinkler systems and smoke detectors. The striking results: On highways, vehicle fires declined 64 percent from 1980 to 2013. Building fires fell 54 percent during that time. When they break out, sprinkler systems almost always extinguish the flames before firefighters can turn on a hose.”
A Suggested Response
It is true that fires are down in the United States, and consequently fire deaths are down as well. However, the death rate per 1,000 fires has not changed over that time, despite all of the improvements that Professor McChesney mentions(4). He ignores the fact that the increase use of synthetic material over that same time period had led to fires that grow much faster and buildings are being built to keep the cold out--but that also means that they keep the heat in. The combination of these factors has made the fires that do occur more dangerous for occupants and firefighters(5). In addition, although it is true that sprinklers are a very effective life-saving device, they are present in only 4.6 percent of U.S. homes(6). It will take decades before sprinklers will have a major impact. For the foreseeable future, the need for a quick response by firefighters--typically less than eight minutes from the time of the 911 calls—is critical, especially if the goal is to save the occupants trapped inside.
We find it interesting that Professor McChesney did not cite the reduction in smoking as one of the reasons for the reduction fires. It is clearly a contributing factor(7). Perhaps this oversight stems from the professor’s past as a consulting economist for the tobacco industry. “Fred McChesney was one of the founding group of economists who advised the Tobacco Institute to run the operation which became the cash-for-comments economists network. These academics all had in common the desire to make money from the tobacco industry without revealing their connection to the 'Merchants of Death'. Savarese and Tollison provided them with the shield from 'legal discovery' so they were able to claim that these were "independent expert opinion articles" (op-eds).”(8,9)
But oddly, as the number of fires has dropped, the ranks of firefighters have continued to grow — significantly. There are half as there were 30 years ago, but about 50 percent more people are paid to fight them.
A Suggested Response
Professor McChesney's argument is based on the simplistic premise that the number of paid firefighters in the U.S. should be proportional to the number of fires in the U.S. This argument ignores many critical factors.
1. Since 1980, the population of the U.S. has increased by 42 percent (225 million in 1980 to 320 million today). This population is also aging. Both of these trends increase the demand for fire and EMS services(10).
2. Fires are not the only type of incident that matters for the number of firefighters needed in a community. Local fire departments have become multi-hazard response agencies. This is not a “conspiracy,” as suggested by Professor McChesney, but a response to the demand by local communities for better emergency preparedness regardless of the hazard. Local fire departments are the agency designated to mitigate the community’s risk from fire, hazmat spills, natural disasters, confined space incidents, etc. This expansion of duties was natural since it took advantage of the pre-existing emergency response capabilities inherent in fire departments.
3. Since 1980 there has been an increase in urbanization(11). Urban areas tend to require more emergency services, and they also have the resources to pay for those services.
4. The expanded duties of local fire departments over the past 30 years have commensurately increased the training required to become a volunteer. This factor, coupled with increasingly mobile populations and fewer people working within their local communities, has made the recruitment of volunteers more difficult (12).
But the era of massive fires that claim hundreds of lives is over. Large-scale disasters, such as the 1942 Cocoanut Grove inferno in Boston that killed 492 people, and the 1903 Iroquois Theatre conflagration in Chicago, which killed 602, are largely forgotten. As recently as the early 1980s, it wasn’t unusual to have a couple of home fires a year that resulted in 10 or more deaths each, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Today, that kind of fire-related tragedy is almost unheard of. There wasn’t a single one between 2008 and 2013 (the most recent year recorded).
A Suggested Response
Professor McChesney expands on his earlier logic by arguing that the number of paid firefighters in the U.S. should be proportional not only to the number of fires in the U.S., but to the number of catastrophic fires in the U.S.
This part of the analysis is probably the most misleading and ridiculous.
By focusing on catastrophic fires, Professor McChesney is ignoring the main reason why communities want a local fire department in the first place. It is not to protect them from catastrophic fires; it is to save their lives and property in a typical one- or two-room fire. The percentage of fire fatalities that occur in catastrophic fires has always been an extremely small portion of the overall fire problem. According to the NFPA, in 2014 (catastrophic multiple death) fires killed 128 people. This accounted for 3.9 percent of the total fire deaths in the U.S. in 2014(13). In 1979, the numbers were not that much different. According to the NFPA, fires that killed 10 or more people only accounted for 124 fatalities (1.9 percent) out of 6,245(14). It also needs to be mentioned that Professor McChesney must not consider the massive wildfires plaguing many parts of the U.S. to be catastrophic fires.
For fire departments, building blazes — catastrophic or not — have become infrequent. Firefighters responded to 487,500 structure fires across the United States in 2013, which means each of the nation’s 30,000 fire departments saw just one every 22 days, on average.
A Suggested Response
This is a very misleading statement. The vast majority of fire departments in the U.S. are volunteer departments that serve rural areas and protect very small communities. According to the same report(3) relied upon by Professor McChesney, there are 387 fire department protecting communities with more than 100,000 occupants, of which 97 percent are staffed with career firefighters.
At the same time, there are 14,059 fire departments protecting communities with less than 2,500 occupants, of which 99 percent are staffed by volunteer firefighters. Most fires occur in larger communities, with many metropolitan fire departments responding to multiple fires each day. To average in volunteer departments with paid departments and then use the results to criticize paid departments is unfair.
1987 to 2011, to $44.8 billion, accounting for inflation. To be fair, fire departments have shouldered additional responsibility since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and are expected to have the training and equipment necessary to respond to various types of terrorism, including biological and chemical attacks. Still, in a November report, the National Fire Protection Association blamed the surge in fire department funding on ballooning staffs, overtime pay and retirement and health benefits — things that have nothing to do with the threat of terrorism.
A Suggested Response
First, Professor McChesney’s attempt to be “fair” is in truth “unfair.”
His assumption that the only increase in responsibilities that local fire departments have added in the past few years relates to terrorism is inaccurate. This attempt “to be fair” was probably only included to give the impression that the author was being objective. Actually, his next opinion, regarding the referenced NFPA Report(3), appears completely subjective. The NFPA does not “blame” paid fire departments for the increase in expenditures. Here is the exact quote:
From the Section Titled, “U.S. Expenditures on Local Fire Protection” – “Note that these expenditures adjusted for inflation, have risen 172% from 1980 to 2011. Other municipal service costs like police protection have risen in a similar manner. Fire protection costs rose 114% from 1986 to 2011 after adjusting for inflation, while the number of career firefighters increased 45%. Since chiefs of fire departments serving larger communities report problems with shrinking budgets or with level budgets combined with increasing responsibilities, this clear pattern of increasing fire department resources nationwide is difficult to interpret. Some of the factors possibly contributing to this increase in costs are one, shrinkage of the work week for some departments, which results in a need to increase staffing and apparatus or to pay firefighters at overtime rates; two, increased EMS responsibilities requiring increased staffing and, in some communities, a more frequent replacement of apparatus; and three, costs of retirement and health benefits continuing to rise as they do for the general population.”
Exorbitant overtime costs are fueled by union-negotiated minimum-staffing levels that often mandate four firefighters per engine are on duty at all times, regardless of the cost or workload.
A Suggested Response
As with so much of this editorial, no data is provided to support Professor McChesney’s opinion. First, it is unlikely that “union-negotiated minimum staffing levels” for four firefighters are creating exorbitant overtime costs, since few departments, except for larger cities, have minimum staffing levels of four fire fighters. Typical for most moderate-sized communities is three firefighters, but many have less than three(15). Second, the benefit of minimum staffing, particularly in larger cities with dense construction and larger buildings, has been documented in many independent studies. The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) (16) conducted the most recent scientific research.
In other words, for every structure fire a fire department responds to, it receives 44 medical calls, on average. So “fire” department has become a misnomer. In practice, these agencies have become emergency medical responders. The problem with that? Most communities already have ambulance services, whose staffs are less expensive and more highly trained in medical aid.
A Suggested Response
Notice how no data is provided to support the claim that “most communities already have ambulance services.” Of the 200 most populated communities, 97 percent have the fire service delivering pre-hospital emergency medical service response. Additionally, the fire service provides critical advanced life support (ALS) response and care in 90 percent of the 30 most populated U.S. cities and counties. Today, virtually every firefighter in the United States receives medical training as a part of their normal training agenda. Many firefighters are classified as firefighter/EMTs or firefighter/paramedics(17).
Recognizing the overlap, some cities have merged their fire and EMS services, over union objections. Some require that all members of the newly combined agency be certified to respond to both types of crisis, which improves efficiency and lowers costs. But other cities have struggled to merge the cultures and operations of the departments.
A Suggested Response
This claim is false. Although there may be isolated cases in which a local fire department resists taking over EMS duties, the vast majority welcomes this trend. It is a natural extension of the traditional fire service role, i.e. protecting the public. Both the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), which is comprised of fire chiefs from paid and volunteer fire departments, and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) support fire-based EMS(17, 18).
Municipalities that have stuck with the volunteer model got it right — and that is most of them. About 69 percent of all firefighters in the country are volunteers. It is mainly larger cities and towns that have been burdened by union staffing and salary demands that are incompatible with their declining firefighting needs.
A Suggested Response
This is a very misleading statement. According to the NFPA, the 14.8 percent of fire departments that are career/mostly career, many of them union, protect over 66 percent of the U.S. population(3).
Nor is this to say that professional firefighters are not heroic. They are and have repeatedly proved as much, most notably during the Sept. 11 attacks. But volunteers also are capable of such bravery. When we entrusted them with protecting our largest cities from blazes, they showed up and courageously put their lives on the line. In 1835, New York’s volunteer firefighters faced freezing conditions to battle the conflagration that destroyed Lower Manhattan but killed just two people.
A Suggested Response
No one is arguing, as implied by professor McChesney, that the courage of professional firefighters is what distinguished them from volunteers. Based on conversations with firefighters that we know, the courage shown by the members of the FDNY that day, or for that matter any other day, is an example that both paid and volunteer firefighters hope to emulate, if the job requires it. (Perhaps the reason that Professor McChesney’s articles always appear near the anniversary of 9/11 is to counteract the natural sympathy for the paid fire service invoked by this tragedy.)
The key difference between volunteers and paid firefighters is response time and staffing. As the NIST studies(16) indicate, once a response time exceeds eight minutes and/or staffing falls below four firefighters, the probability that occupants’ lives will be saved and the fire damage will be limited decrease dramatically.
The need for a quick response for EMS incidents is just as critical. It is in recognition of these realities that most communities that can afford to do so choose to rely on paid firefighters. We suspect that the citizens of New York would not be satisfied with the fact that “just two people died” if lower Manhattan was destroyed.
Although Professor McChesney seems sincere in his beliefs, this editorial reminds us of Mark Twain’s advice: "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story(19)."
To many in the fire service, both volunteer and paid, some of the professor’s opinions sound irrational and venomous, particularly since he seems to repeatedly send out this argument around the anniversary of 9/11. This seems to be “rubbing salt in the wound.” He is apparently a libertarian who opinions “arise from his realization that government is merely a collection of self-interested individuals. Being in government gives the special people a property right, not just to legislate rents but to impose costs(20).”
As a consequence, Professor McChesney appears to feel that being a paid firefighter is a type of extortion. Viewed in this light, it starts to become understandable where his antagonism for paid firefighters, particularly unionized firefighters, originates. Fortunately, the vast majorities of the public, as well as the vast majority of elected officials, do not share this ideology or his negative opinion of those of us who have chosen firefighting as a profession.
In order to assist local officials, who have to balance a community’s desire for adequate emergency response with a community’s desire for fiscal prudence, the following steps could be taken.
1. If a local newspaper attempts to publish a copy of this article, ask them to please fact check it first. In the case of this editorial, the fact checkers at the Washington Post must have been on vacation. It is also possible that the editors were sympathetic to the professor’s libertarian views since, “in January 2014, the Post announced a partnership with the conservative-libertarian blog The Volokh Conspiracy(21).” We do not object to anyone writing Op-Eds that advocate libertarian/small government ideas. We do object to those who ignore or misinterpret inconvenient facts just because they do not support those ideas. If your local paper insists on publishing it, request the opportunity to challenge his arguments and facts.
2. Instead of waiting for these types of media attacks, be proactive. Using the Internet, community meetings, local media etc. educate the public about the changing role of the fire service and explain all of the services that their local fire department provides.
3. Educate yourself regarding the latest research from NIST, NFPA, and Underwriters Laboratories so that you have the information at your fingertips. In our many conversations with the public, it is obvious that few are aware of how fast fire grows and the importance of a quick response.
4. Read about the groundbreaking research undertaken by the economist at the University of Arizona titled, “The Economic Impact of Successful Commercial Fire Interventions.” For a one-year period, this study estimated that, if the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department had been unable to successfully intervene in 42 commercial fires, the state of Arizona would have experienced a loss of $650 million dollars in Gross State Product and over $35 million in state tax revenue(22).
While there is no guarantee that educating local officials about the reality of providing emergency response in the 21stCentury will stop dangerous cutbacks in services, we have found that educating local and state officials regarding the multi-faceted emergency response capabilities of a typical local fire department can make a difference. We also hope that this information allows local fire officials to educate the public they protect. Additional information is available from others who disagree with Professor McChesney’s editorial. For example: Campus Safety(23) and the IAFF(24) have critiques with interesting points of view on this issue.
This article can also be found on fireengineering.com.
About the Authors
Eddie (Edzo) Kelly has been a member of the Boston (MA) Fire Department since 1997. He was elected President of Boston Fire Fighters Local 718 (IAFF) in 2005 and President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts (IAFF) in 2011. In 2015, recognizing the pivotal role the fire service will play in pre-hospital care; President Kelly advanced a multidisciplinary strategic vision paving the way for Massachusetts to initiate Mobile Integrated Health Care, the first legislation of its kind in the nation to incorporate fire-based EMS in mobile community health. This legislation seeks to maximize patient outcomes, while fostering community, health and wellness.
Joseph (Jay) Fleming has been a member of the Boston (MA) Fire Department since 1978. He has held the rank of Deputy Fire Chief since 1992. Jay is also a member of Boston Fire Fighters Local 718 (IAFF). Jay has been recognized by the State of Massachusetts, the Boston Fire Department, Local 718 and the Boston Municipal Research Bureau (a fiscal “watchdog” group) for his efforts to protect the public and fire fighters. Jay works as a consultant with the PFFM to generate new ideas for fire fighters safety and fire department productivity.
1. McChesney, Fred. “Fewer Fires, So Why Are There Far More Firefighters?” The Washington Post, September 4, 2015. (Click Here)
2. McChesney, Fred. “Plenty of Firefighters, but where are the fires?” The Boston Globe, September 8, 2013. (Click Here)
3. “U.S. Fire Department Profile”, National Fire Protection Association, November 2014. (Click Here)
4. “Home Structure Fires”, National Fire Protection Association, September 2015. (Click Here)
5. “Analysis of Changing Residential Fire Dynamics and Its Implications on Firefighter Operational Timeframes”, Underwriters Laboratories, April 2014. (Click Here)
6. “U.S. Experience with Sprinklers”, National Fire Protection Association, June, 2013. (Click Here)
7. “The Smoking Material Fire Problem”, National Fire Protection Association, July 2013. (Click Here)
8. Biography-Fred McChesney, sourcewatch.com (Click Here)
10. “Demographics of the United States”
11. “Urbanization in the United States”
12. “Help Wanted: More than a Few Good Part-Time Volunteer Firefighters”, The Star Tribune, August 7, 2013, Minneapolis, MN. (Click Here)
13. “Catastrophic Multiple death fires in 2014”, National Fire Protection Association, September 2015. (Click Here)
14. “Fire Protection Handbook, 15th Edition”, National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, 1981.
15. “Police and Fire Personnel, Salaries and Expenditures for 2011, Chapter 10 of the Municipal Yearbook, 2012, International City/County Management Association.
16. “Staffing Studies”, Fire and Technology Group of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Bethesda, MD.
17. IAFC Position: Fire-based Emergency Medical Services, Adopted May 7, 2009. (Click Here)
18. “Fire Based EMS”, International Association of Fire Fighters. (Click Here)
19. “Mark Twain Quotes”, goodreads.com.
20. Frank, Thomas, The Wrecking Crew (Page 246), Macmillan Publishing, August 18, 2009.
21. “The Washington Post”
22. “The Economic Impact of Successful Commercial Fire Interventions”, Dr. Anthony Evans, Seidman Research Institute, W. P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University, February 12, 2014.
23. “Law Prof Attacks Firefighters for 9/11, Labor Day”, Campus Reports, Posted on September 7, 2015. (Click Here)
24. “Fire Fighters Respond to All Hazards and Save Lives”, IAFF Blog, September 10, 2015. (Click Here)