Firefighter Hysteresis

by on September 7, 2013 at 7:30 am in Economics, Law, Political Science | Permalink

The number of fires is down but the number of career firefighters is up, as I showed last year in my post firefighters don’t fight fires. Leon Neyfakh of the Boston Globe covers the situation in Boston:

…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.

Later, I am quoted:

Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University who discussed the fire statistics on the blog Marginal Revolution, explains it in terms of what’s called the “March of Dimes problem.” When polio was defeated, the March of Dimes, started under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to combat the disease, suddenly had no reason to exist. “They were actually successful, and it was something they never planned for,” said Tabarrok. “But instead of disbanding the organization, they set it onto a whole bunch of other tasks…and so it’s kind of lost its focus. It’s no longer easy to evaluate whether it’s doing a good job or not.”

This, in Tabarrok’s view, is what happened to the country’s fire departments: At a certain point, they became an organization in search of a mission. “So they ended up doing things they’re not necessarily the optimal people to do, like responding to medical emergencies.”

Some cities are trying to change but as I said in my original piece, “it’s hard to negotiate with heroes”. The situation in Toronto illustrates. Paramedics were recently assigned to more emergency calls at the expense of firefighters who have responded with photos ops in front of burned homes and threats that if their budget is cut children will die. Not wanting to lose their newly found responsibilities, the paramedics have responded with a campaign of their own leading to an awesome cat fight between the two agencies.

I enjoyed Margaret Wente’s conclusion:

A powerful combination of fear-mongering and hero worship has made Canada’s fire departments largely immune to budget cuts. As a consequence, the citizens are getting hosed.

1 Glenn Schafer September 7, 2013 at 8:45 am

Same situation here in Irvine Ca. Last 20 years the number of fires have been cut in half and the number of firefighters has doubled. Just yesterday at my gym a fire truck with five firefighters shows up for a guy who has fainted. Then they stand around while an EMS guy takes his vitals. I asked them why they do this and they said they have to be visible in the community.

2 BC September 7, 2013 at 9:07 am

I can understand why there would be political resistance to laying off current firefighters. However, this drop in fires has occurred over several decades. Why is it so difficult to downsize through attrition, i.e., by recruiting and training fewer new firefighters?

“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.”

In the on going discussion here about robots and technology, more reliable cars was cited a few days ago as an example of a technology that reduces the demand for mechanics. I suspect that fewer people would be “concerned” though that more fire-safe homes might decrease the demand for firefighters. So, what is the principle here: “competition” from better building codes and materials is ok, but not from robots and software (and immigrants)? Automatic sprinklers seem to have some robot-like characteristics, so I suppose those fall somewhere in between. What defines an acceptable means for reducing the number of broken windows?

3 nl7 September 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Someone has to initiate that attrition policy, first. And the people making hiring decisions are themselves the managers of firefighters, so fewer employees can be seen to reduce their own importance (see: Sir Humphrey on the civil service).

Second, that doesn’t necessarily reduce the budget. Budgeting is not necessarily linked to the staffing numbers. And in places where they are linked, the firehouses can correctly claim that their funding levels are being reduced by political rules – and then get the dollar numbers held steady or increased.

4 NNM4 September 7, 2013 at 9:20 am

Don’t forget ethnic affiliation. In most northeastern cities in the US, the fire department is a manifestation of Irish pride as well as a source of “Irish welfare.” To the extent that resonates with voters, it will make it that much harder to cut the budget.

5 Ray Bradbury September 7, 2013 at 9:38 am

Obvious solution: put them in charge of burning books that anyone finds offensive.

6 mw September 7, 2013 at 9:40 am

Didn’t we already fix this by laying off the real bad-guys–teachers?

7 Bill September 7, 2013 at 9:44 am

What’s far worse is tenure in colleges with declining enrollments.

Maybe we can get a 70 year old tenured faculty member to get cats out of trees. One less fireman.

When will Alex attack tenure with the same zeal as he attacks firefighters?

8 Careless September 7, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Given that the most common causes of workplace deaths for firefighters are things like heart attacks, this could be more effective than you expect

9 Bill September 7, 2013 at 8:08 pm


10 Sven September 7, 2013 at 9:57 am
11 ThomasH September 7, 2013 at 9:57 am

Getting unemployable down so that firefighters and would be firefighters have other options will make it easier to reduce these microeconomics frictions. Let’s hope the
Fed remembers this when it decides not to “taper” on the 18th.

12 williamsH September 7, 2013 at 10:09 am

This naive hero-worship of anyone wearing a government costume/uniform is always heavily promoted by the American media … along with near zero factual information about the staggering expansion of government operations and their true costs.

Media bias and its quasi-religious devotion to government… are always dismissed (by the establishment media) as myth, but it is blatantly on display 24/7. And the public school system also does ‘heroic’ feats of indoctrinating every new generation on the wonders of government and its noble, selfless, underpaid personnel.

13 Barbara Alexander September 7, 2013 at 10:26 am

The story at the link is an illustration of why it is so hard to cut these jobs. I would argue more broadly, however, that threats to any job that has come to be viewed as an entitlement can trigger very strong resistance, deployed with almost any means available – idealism and principles can go right out the window.

14 Alex Fan September 7, 2013 at 10:26 am

I saw a list of “most dangerous jobs” recently and police/firefighters barely rated. As I recall, farming is something like 13x more dangerous than police work. I guess the risk of getting chewed up and spit out by a combine is >>>> the risk of being winged by some gangbanger.

15 prior_approval September 7, 2013 at 11:17 am

Of course, the number of mass bombings in Boston did go up recently. But since that bombing didn’t start any major fires, why should anyone pay to have professionals trained to deal with mass casualty events.

It isn’t as if such things are likely to happen again, right? After all, there haven’t been any bombing attacks this year at all.

The really funny thing is that companies in Germany, like BASF, are required to maintain their own firefighters, who, hopefully, never have anything to do. Which sounds like an outrageous regulatory burden – and yet, strangely, no one here seems to think that having trained professionals available to handle an exceedingly unlikely event are a waste of money. Though that might have something to do with recent hitorical events, of course.

16 Da September 7, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Chemical factory vs. city, apples vs. oranges…

But while you are comparing to Germany: We have two different numbers to call in cases of an emergency, one for the fire fighters and one for medical emergencies. The fire fighters are only called when there is a fire or some kind of natural desaster. Seems easier to me. In fact it seems fairly stupid to me to have a fire fighting truck roll out every time someone has a medical accident.

17 Cliff September 7, 2013 at 11:56 pm

Wow. Self-parody?

18 Marian Kechlibar September 8, 2013 at 5:57 am

The difference between the firefighters at BASF and the municipal firefighters is the same as difference between tropical disease experts and general practicioners of medicine in a European city.
The experts are trained in very specific discipline (putting out toxic and potentially explosive fires in industrial environment, Ebola) and cannot be easily substituted by other professional colleagues who do not have this sort of training.

It can be noted that the cost of the teams in the factories is born by the customer who buys the products of said factories – which I percieve as quite functional and just.

19 Zachary September 7, 2013 at 1:21 pm

HAHA!!! I remember the original post about the fire and firefighter stats! I ended up getting defriended on facebook by a person who didn’t want to hear that live haven’t infinite values. Some people want to say that there are no budget constraints – it’s not a friend whom I lament losing!

20 byomtov September 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm

You are overstating your case here, Alex.

The nominal cost of Boston’s fire department has increased by 2.7% a year over the past decade, about the inflation rate.

Property values have undoubtedly increased over that period, so maybe it’s worth spending more money to get quicker response times and so on. And there has been some population growth over the decade as well.

“Major” fires have declined. Is it possible that firefighters, in combination with sprinklers and other things mentioned, help keep minor fires from turning into major ones? Shouldn’t we at least consider that. Anecdotally, I’ve seen very large responses to some alarms. Maybe some of that is wasteful – I don’t know – but maybe it also keeps fires minor.

Having firefighters able to administer emergency medical assistance seems sensible to me. I’m guessing it’s needed at many fires, even minor ones.

Nice to know that regulations have helped reduce the fire problem.

21 Dan Weber September 8, 2013 at 10:29 am

If the cost has remained about the same, that could be fine, even if fires are dropping.

A fire department is like a standing army — you need N firefighters for 30 fires a year and N firefighters for 60 fires a year. N will stay N until push really hard at either end of the scale.

How does “cost up by 2%” square with “doubling of number of career firefighters”? Are there unseen costs in that 2%, like unfunded pensions that will screw the next generation?

22 Dan Weber September 8, 2013 at 10:48 am

Oh, that “doubling of fire fighters” story has someone else’s, not Alex’s.

I’m not denying that firefighter’s have a lobbying and public perception outsized to their value to society, but I’m not sure why a halving of fires should halve the fire department’s budget.

23 Pablo September 7, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Please keep in mind that the number of firefighters needed to cover a certain area is a function of not only number of fires, but also response times. It takes multiple fire companies to put out a fire. If you cut the number of firefighters, you’ll have a longer wait for the needed resources to be in place.

24 Savonarola September 7, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Firefighters are the enemies of man and God.

25 Marie September 7, 2013 at 10:56 pm

In non-urban flyover country there are still large areas served by volunteer fire departments.

Wildfires and smoke jumpers are their own story, too.

26 Brian Slesinsky September 7, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Since firefighting is an emergency service, I’d guess that the number of firefighters you need has little to do with idle capacity on an average day and a more to do with peak usage in an emergency. Perhaps the number of fires has gone down, but has the staffing needed to fight the largest fires gone down? If not, the real question is how to more productively use firefighters’ time when they’re not actually fighting fires or training, will be most of the time.

Also, the value of the property being insured (potential damage) has skyrocketed. Perhaps we should take that into account when deciding how much capacity to have? How would insurance rates change with cutbacks in fire-fighting capacity?

27 Ray Lopez September 8, 2013 at 3:02 am

No, rising property values are better covered by insurance, and fire prevention, than trying to douse a fire with water. As any firefighter can tell you, if you have to douse a building fire with water, at that point the building is already trash, so insurance will have to cover the repairs anyway. Here in the Philippines the fire departments are also overstaffed and make-work.

28 byomtov September 8, 2013 at 9:44 am

That may be true for the building where the fire has started, but what about neighboring properties? Paying extra for firefighters to keep the fire from spreading can be seen as a form of insurance and is surely more desirable than just spending the extra on insurance.

Besides, not all fire damage is easily measured monetarily.

29 Marian Kechlibar September 8, 2013 at 10:33 am

You can’t really prepare for “peak emergency”, because the “peak” is something dreadful, a large-scale destruction, which no reasonably large local forces are able to manage.

If something like a huge conflagration/flooding/hurricane/wildfire/volcano explosion happens, nearby cities or even states must help.

It is significantly more effective to tailor the force size to the average + a safety margin (say 40 per cent) and to conclude some mutual-help arrangements with cities in proximity. That seems to me a much better solution than overstaffing the local force for a possible Armageddon.

30 Boonton September 8, 2013 at 8:27 am

A few things to keep in mind here:

1. Unless you get to zero fires, you have a fixed cost problem. Since we always want the fire department to be able to show up to a real fire in a short amount of time, you will need fire departments spaced out around an area to provide coverage. This does mean that fire fighter will become a much duller job as the time between fires increases.

2. oddly there’s a counter dynamic here, as fires get more and more rare, our tolerance for them becomes less and less. If tomorrow 20 people die in a high rise fire, it’s going to be a huge deal. Since we are getting used to fires never happening, we demand that the few fires that still break out get addressed immediately…which means demand for more firefighters and fire departments so we need never have to see a news report about a fire destroying a home or life.

This makes the demand function for firefighters interesting because on on hand you have fires approaching zero but our intolerance for fires approaching infinity. Result, fire fighter employment ends up being surprisingly stable. Contrast this with, say, buggy whip makers or stage coach drivers whose employment more or less disappeared in line with technology making the job obsolete.

31 Marian Kechlibar September 8, 2013 at 10:39 am

The same principle that you mention in your paragraph 2 works for pretty much any danger. People are afraid of highly unlikely risks such as terrorism or kidnapping, while being more and more tolerant about the real large-scale killers such as the metabolic syndrome + diabetes, just because they are common.

It can be demonstrated well on the prevailing style of parenting, where children are being kept home under the pretext of keeping them safe from the (extremely rare) “street predators”. The same children, having not enough physical activity, gain weight, which will cost them at least several years of life and a lot of happiness. But obesity is ubiquitious, thus “normal”, and its risks are ignored.

32 Boonton September 8, 2013 at 3:00 pm

True, but accidental fires are a bit different than terrorism and kidnapping. Namely technological advances can be used by kidnappers and terrorists (and criminals) too so it’s not clear that advancing technology necessarily reduces the demand for police and security. Look at cyber-terrorism, identity theft, hackers from Russia and Nigeria stealing people’s bank accounts etc. This is a type of crime that didn’t exist a generation ago and along with it we now have a whole new field of law enforcement.

As we packed more and more electronics into buildings, it *might have* happened that we would have created more ways for accidental fires to happen but it seems like that’s not how the technology played out. Building codes reduced accidental fires and on balance new technology seems to reduce accidental fires than create new ways for them to happen (for example, better heating systems replace makeshift kerosine heaters).

33 Monte Davis September 8, 2013 at 11:43 am

My mother joined the National Foundation-MoD as a copywriter in 1960, early in their post-polio transition, and retired as VP for Medical Information in 1985; I did some freelance work for them as a budding science writer in the 1970s. I haven’t followed them at all closely for the last 25 years.

At a broad socioeconomic-utility level, I’m happy to entertain the proposition that it would have been better for them to declare “mission accomplished” and dissolve after Salk and Sabin. But they were (1) a key sponsor for research in medical genetics as the pathways from lab to clinic were just forming, and (2) absolutely essential in establishing genetic counseling programs across the country — and taking the heat when pro-lifers decided that genetic counseling = abortion advocacy. Other, more focused sponsors might well have done as much for many areas, e.g. perinatology and maternal health, but in those areas the NF-MoD was doing what nobody else was yet geared up to do. Optimally? I don’t know, but they were doing it.

34 tt31 September 8, 2013 at 11:50 am

Two quotes from the article: A: “Firefighters are often able to get to an emergency scene a few minutes earlier than an ambulance—in part because of the number of fire stations, and in part because ambulances are busier…” B: “For Tabarrok, the solution is to shrink fire departments and spend the savings to pay for more ambulances, which would reduce their response time.”

Given the first part of A, would you want to amend B to say that those ambulances should be located at fire stations? And if so, what are the implications for what “Fire Department” means?

35 Boonton September 9, 2013 at 8:33 am

I’d say no. While a fire crew can fill in with the work an ambulance can do, an ambulance can’t fill in for a fire crew. And the most logical ‘home base’ fo ran ambulance IMO would be a hospital.

You’re stuck with fire stations because fires have not been eliminated AND you wan to respond to them quickly, even if they are more rare these days. Being able to respond to medical emergancies when they aren’t responding to fires is an added bonus.

36 Ape Man September 9, 2013 at 1:14 pm

I think the real answer to the problem is to cross train firefighters in more disciplines. If they have a lot of time on their hands, their is no reason (other than union protests) why they can’t be trained as EMT’s as well as firefighters. At least one airport does just this (their on-site firefighting crew is armed security, EMTs, and firefighting crew all rolled into one).

This approach has been tried in a couple places, but usually the unions kick up a fuss. No one likes getting out of their comfort zone.

37 Pat September 10, 2013 at 5:41 pm

It may surprise you to know that one of the most common staffing models involves what is known as a “jump company.” This is the practice of having the same group of firefighters who are also cross-trained as paramedics and using them to staff both vehicles. If they have an EMS call, the ambulance pushes out from the station, if it is a fire call they take an engine.

You may want to spend some time at the local fire station and find out what they do all day. It can be an eye opening experience.

38 george September 14, 2013 at 8:09 am

I second the notion of a reality encounter: many conclusions in this thread seem to be opinion driven.

Regarding the notion that building codes are eliminating the need to fight fires, and thus eliminate the need for fire fighters, code changes may require sprinklers in commercial and multifamily structures, but not single family homes. They do have smoke detectors. Happened to at fire call data last week for a small town volunteer fire company. It’s only one data point, but the number of “fire alarm” calls was 4x the number of “fires.” And they respond to twice as many MV Maccidents.

Construction methods for stick built home haven’t changed changed to same extent as commercial construction. Indeed, reading discussions on use of sprinklers in single family construction, some code officials are concerned that the use of smaller dimensioned lumber is reducing the fire resistance of those structures, so it is increasingly important that there be early response.

But the main point is that preventing a fire is best; responding quickly to a small fire is better, while fighting an established fire is least desirable.

Some NFPA data:

U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 1,375,000 fires. These fires caused 2,855 civilian fire deaths, 16,500 reported civilian injuries and $12.4 billion in direct property damage. Eighty-three percent of the deaths resulted from fires in homes, including one- or two family homes, manufactured housing and apartments or other multi-family housing.

39 Steve Adams September 11, 2013 at 12:18 am

It would be great to see city by city comparisons. Chicago claims over 2,000 structure fires a year. Seems very different from Boston.

Still would think that some thing closer to a volunteer department would be way more cost effective. The one in our small community works great.

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