Firefighters Don’t Fight Fires

Over the past 35 years, the number of fires in the United States has fallen by more than 40% while the number of career firefighters has increased by more than 40% (data).

(N.B. Volunteer firefighters were mostly pushed out of the big cities in the late 19th century but there are a surprising number who remain in rural areas and small towns; in fact, more in total than career firefighters. The number of volunteers has been roughly constant and almost all of them operate within small towns of less than 25,000. Thus, you can take the above as approximating towns and cities of more than 25,000.)

The decline of demand has created a problem for firefighters. What Fred McChesney wrote some 10 years ago is even more true 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.

Here’s some data. Note that medical calls dwarf fire calls. Twenty five years ago false alarms were half the number of fires, today false alarms significantly exceed the number of fires.

According to Nightline it costs $3,500 every time a fire truck pulls out of a fire station in Washington, DC (25 calls in a 24 hour shift is not uncommon so this adds up quickly).  Moreover, most of the time the call is not for a fire but for a minor medical problem. In many cities, both fire trucks and ambulances respond to the same calls. The paramedics do a great job but it is hard to believe that this is an efficient way to deliver medical care and transportation. A few locales have experimented with more rational systems. For example:

For calls that are not a life or death, Eastside Fire and Rescue stations [in WA state] will no longer send out a fire truck but instead an SUV with one certified medic firefighter.

Sounds obvious, but it’s hard to negotiate with heroes especially when they are unionized with strong featherbedding contracts.


About the false alarms, as the signal gets weaker and the detectors get more sensitive the noise swamps the signal. So not entirely unexpected. The higher density of detectors etc. probably add to this too.

When visiting the US, I was always surprised by the number of different trucks (and sometimes helicopters) that show up to a simple accident: emergency, hospital, police, fire department, EMT, Sheriff, Highway patrol, FBI, ATF, Haz Mat, SWAT, K9 and so on.

It always looked more like a movie set than an accident scene.

... what manner of 'simple accidents' have you been involved in? :P

Oh, and I forgot: Campus police.

by simple accident it sounds like toxic spill orchestrated by terrorists on a university campus :)
it must be really bad when the hospital even shows up!

I was in L.A. on business. I, for some reason, threw up at the table at a restaurant.
I wasn't the food, but just some stomach virus or whatever. The staff came over and
said they were going to call 911. I said "No, not needed. Just a stomach thing."
They did anyway. And, put a security person on my to assist me to and in the restroom.
Then, I was escorted outside where EMS and a firetruck were pulling in. Then, because of some high blood pressure reading, the put me in the ER. I just threw up.

The whole thing cost me about $2500, with insurance, and everyone else got a few hours pay. Because I had a stomach virus. There were 12 guys between the EMS and firemen that showed because the restaurant wanted to make sure I didn't sue them or whatever. I hate California.

You could have refused treatment and spent no money...

So the number of fires decreases as fire fighters increase. I know why, if you are a spark or an electrical fault you look at the higher number of firefighters and think why would I bother and don't start the fire that you would have.

Or maybe the fire-fighters used to be the arsonists before?

I recently heard an anecdote about a reserve fire fighter who started a few fires in order to get the pay, until he was caught. Perverse incentives at work.

NPR talked about this just last week.

One of the largest wildfires in Arizona's history was started by someone hoping to get a job as a firefighter. Whoops.

Actually, some small-ish number probably are pyromaniacs. I have a friend that shared a house with one. Guy burned up a whole cord of wood at the beginning of winter one day just to watch it burn. (In the stove.)

"So the number of fires decreases as fire fighters increase." My buddy the fireman spends his time doing high-rise inspections. Just sayin'

Is it possible that there's a connection between the increased fire fighters and decreased fires? Although, seeing as the number of fire calls is flat in the second graph, its likely that there is little connection.

How would that actually work? Firefighters show up after fires are burning; they don't show up at likely fires and hose things down to prevent them.

Obvious third factor that would account for both: greater demand for protection from fires, particularly the odd low-probability event that requires mass mobilization of emergency services (particularly large typhoons...?).

It has been a very long time since firemen rescuing cats from trees has entered the public consciousness. Arguably it has never been the case that municipal firemen were expected to stick to fires. They're just the emergency responders without guns but with other very heavy equipment, like fire axes.

What'd help is a plot of the average (inflation adjusted) dollar damage in a typical fire. That'd be a good response to judge firefighter effectiveness.

Although even that data is confounded by the improvements in material design etc.

Obviously you never played Sim City.

I was just thinking the same thing.

I don't think this explains things, but this is wrong. Every time I've called the fire department, and it hasn't been a large number, but it's around 5, it's been to have them check out an electrical problem, a smell or something else which while not actually a fire could have plausibly turned into one.

One mechanism would more firefighters -> more/better fire safety inspections -> fewer fires.

New Yorkers might remember the Deutsche Bank building fire in Aug 2007. Fire dept was to inspect the building every 15 days, but it had been 4+ months since an inspection. The fire killed two firefighters.

It's actually quite simple: the fires are not started by firefighters (that's implied by their name), but by the rest of the population. As the percentage of firefighters in the population increase, the percentage of the population that are not firefighters goes down - therefore, the number of fires started goes down as well!

if you look at it, the amount of fires has gone down by basically half. so, assuming that each non-firefighter is equally likely to start a fire, that means that half of the people who used to start fires are no longer doing so. so that means that, assuming the reason is that there are less non-firefighters, you can expect at least half of america to be firefighters, which is not the case.

Thanks to improved materials science and things like Underwriters Laboratory, there really aren't that many fires these days. I think the total # of fires has decreased from the '80s, even though the total population has obviously increased significantly.

However, because fires used to be more common, and are both fast moving and utterly devastating, there are FAR more firehouses than there are hospitals or ambulance depots. So when people call 911 for a first responder, it's normally the firefighters who can get there first. And while that seems like an expensive proposition (sending firefighters as well as EMTs to respond to a medical call), can you imagine the legal liability if somebody dies from a heart attack because dispatch decided that it wasn't necessary to send firefighters to respond to chest pains, and half an hour later the ambulance shows up too late?

It will likely take some time to adapt to the changing nature of 911 calls. But it will happen, and is - a lot of municipalities are consolidating their fire services given current budget woes. Not even heavily unionized heroes are immune to structural changes...

Yes, this was my understanding, too. Also, I think I remember reading once that firehouses were strategically located to minimize the time that it took to get to any location, whereas the same was not true of hospitals. (Can anyone else corroborate that?)

Actually, I know that in Texas the ambulances and firetrucks are both dispatched from firehouses. In fact it's hard to get a job as a firefighter unless you're also a paramedic, the same people do both jobs, from the same place. The main use of the firetruck in a non-fire call is carrying heavy equipment that there is not room to carry in the ambulance, like hydraulic jaws for prying open a car after an accident.

I don't know, but I know that accessibility to the served population is lower on the list of priorities when locating a hospital. In Waco, where I used to live until recently, they moved a hospital (Hilcrest) from the ghetto to a major freeway intersection, just a few minutes from another hospital.

The obvious reason (obvious to me from the time I had to go to the ghetto one) was to make it harder for the poor population to walk in, but of course no one could talk about that.

I live across the street from a retirement home. For every single medical event, a fire truck, an ambulance and a police call show up. Usually, the policemen and firemen will wait outside and chat while the crew from the ambulance responds. In most cases,the patient is not brought out for further services. Whatever the issue is is dealt with inside. As a taxpayer, I find it infuriating.

The death of David E. Rosenbaum, a New York Times Reporter, in the District of Columbia is instructive on how over-the-top the emergency response is to minor non-fire incidents. Rosenbaum was walking in his neighborhood when he was struck on the head with a pipe during a robbery. He collapsed on the ground where he was later found by someone who called 911. The first responders on the scene were four firefighters who were transported via a fire engine. Three of them were trained as EMTs. They incorrectly diagnosed Rosenbaum as suffering from alcohol intoxication.

The next responders to arrive on the scene were 3 MPD police officers. They asked the firefighters whether Rosenbaum had identification on him. The firefighters responded that he did not and that is identity was unknown. The police officers did no formal investigation beyond this, believing, as the firefighters did, that Rosenbaum was drunk. They did not think his lack of a wallet signified that he might have been robbed. MPD did not figure out that this was a robbery until Rosenbaum's family reported suspicious activity on Rosenbaum's credit cards.

The next to arrive on this scene were two EMTs. These EMTs also misdiagnosed Rosenbaum as intoxicated. They transported him to the hospital where doctors left Rosenbaum in a hallway to die, thinking, like everyone else, that he was drunk.

Aside from the gross incompetence of DC's emergency personnel, the remarkable thing about this incident is that NINE different people responded to it. Does it take NINE people to respond to a "man down" call? Even if we put aside the incompetence as being totally separate, this is a remarkably high number of responders.

Why? Both the fire fighters and the cop are on the clock anyway. If he wasn't chatting in front of the retirement home he'd be driving around streets aimlessly. The only actual cost to you the taxpayer is the marginal cost of driving the firetruck to the retirement home...but that's probably not all that huge, they probably should put in so many hours driving the truck per month anyway just to keep their skills up maneuvering the thing.

This seems to merit some more serious economic analysis, call it the 'Night Watchman Problem'. 99.9% of the time the night watchman is nothing but down time but you can't quite get rid of him because:

1. There's that 0.1% of the time when you need him.

2. If word gets out you have no watchman, your place will get targetted and you'll have trouble more than 0.1% of the time.

Labor saving devices like automatic alarms, security cameras, monitoring stations etc. may lower the amount of times you have problems, but they are still a 'waste'. Consider a sprinkler system, you pay for it in your building in the form of higher capital costs. Again just like the fire department most sprinklers are added to buildings only to sit idle most of the time taking up space.

That's not to say improvement isn't possible. Why not have 'medical firefighters' equiped with motorcycles who can zip to an incident very quickly and apply basic CPR and other essential first aid while waiting for the more equiped ambulance to make its way through traffic?

What about fire-related injuries, fatalities, or property damage? Perhaps there are less fires, but when there is one, the increased number of firefighters makes some difference.

Agreed, Josh. "Fighting fires" is what they do, not their benefit. Their utility is protecting stuff (homes, possessions, people) from fire. I would like to see an analysis of loss prevented ($ saved per fire response, or % of homes saved over time?) instead of # of fires.

Property damage has steadily increased over the same period ( So it's an interesting question whether that might justify more firefighters. (My gut reaction is probably not, but it's obviously a real effect).

How do you figure that? From the link you provided, the property damage from fire was $16.9B in 1977, $13.0B in 1990, $14.2B in 2000, and $11.6B in 2010. That doesn't look like it has "steadily increased" to me. Surely, you didn't use the column that wasn't adjusted for inflation. In fact, looking at that table, civilian deaths and injuries, firefighter deaths and injuries, and property damage (inflation-adjusted) have all decreased over the years.

But that doesn't really get at it either.

Suppose property values have increased over time, as they have. It seems to make sense that property owners would be willing to pay more for insurance.

And that's what firefighters are, in a sense. If you have a million-dollar house you are willing to pay more for insurance, including paying more to get firefighters there - more stations, etc.

Or that when there are fires, they tend to be the big multi-acre wildfires that require a lot more manpower, but don't increase the count much.

Do the Colorado wildfires count as "one" (or even a few) fire, despite it requires more manpower than 20 small house fires.

I don't think the actual number of fires is often the issue that determines how many firefighters a city or county needs. Except in rare cases like Detroit--where the city is large and spread out but not densely populated, yet has many abandoned buildings--the issue that drives the number of firefighters needed is whether there are enough on call and spread out enough to respond quickly to emergency calls across the expanse their whole territory. A town may have seen its fire calls drop 50% in the last 30 years for a number of reasons, but it doesn't mean they can drop half their firefighters and still be able to respond to emergencies as well and as quickly as they did when there were more fires.

It may be that continued suburbanization of America from 1985 to 2005 drove an increased in demand for firefighters in outer suburbs that had been rural before and not required professional firefighting services.

Firefighters don't need to come to every emergency that springs up. But what is interesting is that the citizen who dials 911 for a heart attack gets a bill if the ambulance shows up, but not for the fire truck.

Me: "Hello? I might be having a heart attack, but it's most likely just chest pains again. Could you send the fire truck, but hold the ambulance? Thanks."

Cats stock up trees - has this got commoner?

No. We've cut down all the trees, and the cats have been uploaded to the Internet.

A+ post, would read again.

I hate this graphical artifact (intentional trick? ) of making two series intersect by choosing independent scales on the same graph. The human eye is intuitively drawn to an intersection point and ascribes it importance, which in this case is meaningless (so are the relative slopes). When using independent scales people ought to try and not make plot lines intersect.


A worthy rant.

Absolutely right.

Even worse, the Y axis does not start from 0. The graph is worthless

Misleading charts are a pet peeve of mine as well, but this one isn't quite as bad as you make it out to be. If you consider the graph to be one of rate of change, rather than a comparison of actual numbers, you'll find that the two axes are fairly well aligned - the left represents a 1.7x increase, and on the right it's a 1.75x increase. So the relative slopes of the graph are pretty close.

I agree about the intersection point, though. It's meaningless.

Why not just chart the ratio of firefighters to fires?

You could actually start the Y-axis at zero and everything.

These books ought to be studied in every high school.

Firefighters are rent-seekers, no surprise there. The recession is putting downward pressure on rent-seekers, no surprise there. Makes me think, though... economists like Wolfers mourn the drop in public employment and remark how much lower the unemployment rate would be without it, etc, etc... but shouldn't we be welcoming these kinds of reallocations? Surely we're not supposed to subsidize firefighter oversupply forever, and we're surely not going to correct it when there is room in the budget! It does sort of make you despair, though, that you can have oversupplied firefighters while having undersupplied roads and bridges (or whatever), but they all get the downward pressure of squeezed budgets.

Also, some commenters suggest reasons more firefighters may be needed independent of the number of fires. Good points, but there are probably also reasons fewer firefighters are needed. For example, do we assume there has been no innovation in the number of firefighters it takes to respond to fires? Clearly there are bounds like the X amount of water needed to put out Y amount of fire, and clearly that sort of thing is still very hard (see Colorado wildfire, etc), but I would be surprised if there haven't been any productivity gains there over the last 35 years.

The weird thing is that you think this post in any way proves an oversupply of firefighters.

...and you don't?

I don't.

What is the optimal number of firefighters, and what determines that? Why was, say, the 1990 situation better than the one in 2010? Got a reason?

Any analysis that doesn't take property values, and damage per fire, into account is uninformative, at best.

Another point is that in many places the firefighters also serve as paramedics. If that's a recent trend then you have to take those duties into account as well.

Finally, there is simply the matter of preferences. Maybe we are just more willing to spend on fire protection than we were 25 years ago. Who knows?

So no. The graph shows an increase but not an "oversupply." It can't, until we know what a "correct" supply is.

Well said!
+ 1

of course not. the graph highlights the woeful shortage of firemen in 1985, since corrected.

Well, I certainly consider this a prime example of waste -
'90% of the emergency calls to firehouses are to accompany ambulances to the scene of auto accidents and other medical emergencies'

Because why would anyone want a crew of people trained in extricating people from crumpled masses of metal when an ambulance crew - likely needing nothing more than bare hands, at least in the eyes of some - is more than sufficient?

Or have a team of people able to deal with leaking gasoline - which only sometimes turns into a burning pool of gasoline, after all.

Of course, in a better world, we would only pay for the fire service we need - and when we don't pay, the fire department shows up, and watches. I believe this very blog has explored that point - here and

Of course, in that post, the problem wasn't the lack of a fire. The problem, such as it was, was the fact that the person who didn't pay the fee beforehand wasn't able to pay the fee (or even a penalty late fee, so to speak) as the house burned down. Talk about featherbedding at the local fire department, to use the terms of this post. And further, again in the terms of this current post, that the costs to the fire department which rode out and watched the house burn were, apparently and approximately in terms of the DC call out cost average, essentially the same as if they rode out and put out the fire - which in that example, was the case.

Personally, I think the authors should just call for the disbanding of any government function which they don't plan to use. Though somehow I doubt they will demand that Fairfax County cut back on its firefighters - after all, the odds that the stations in their immediate vicinity (Stations 3, 14, 21, 23, 33 come to mind) can't respond to any incident at their workplace in less than a handful of minutes is just part of the advantage of being a tenured GMU professor with a blog.

Don't you know *anything?U

Free riding in not having your house number painted = okay, but free riding on a fire department's services = not okay. Enjoy some hypocrisy with your morning coffee:

But, they don't expect to get their house number painted despite not paying...

I've always declined having the house number painted on the curve or paying for it as usually they paint the number and then ask for the payment. Yes I'm cheap but the argument it helps emergency workers find your house never made sense to me -- I would assume the look at the house not at the curb, the paint wears off quickly, won't they have maps, or what if there is a vehicle in front of the the number on the curve.

Why not let dispatch determine if a fire truck is needed? And don't send one unless there is actual evidence of a bigger problem.

my comment goes slightly off topic but im just trying to get a first move on future comments. I'm curious... as we've move to a more professional staff, how has the quality of fire fighting changed... do we have better containment of fires and/or less property damage? one way to reduce the quantity of professional fighters is to volunteer... of course, our schedules, especially our work schedules, are for too important to devote time toward helping our community. we could say that the fire fighters union wont allow volunteers but the truth is that even if we could volunteer, its likely that 99.99% wouldn't. at least the union provides a conveienent excuse to avoid put our time and lives where our mouth is. that said, im sure that there are a few inflated salaries at each department across the country (then again, it might not be the salaries that are too blame as much as the administrative and maintenance expenses)

Double y axis graph ... boo

Does the data include Emergency Medical Services personnel. They are often associated with Fire Departments, ie, same personnel, and serve the function as an ambulance service.

Check the data. It looks like it does.

Note that Medical Calls are increasing on the graph--so what you really have is a graph showing that EMS demand is increasing while the number of Firefighters is decreasing.

I've been in the room when EMS had to respond to an emergency involving an elderly relative. They didn't bring a hose, but saved a life.

Hard to tell. Doesn't look like it to me.

Cliff, If you have to guess, then the graph and data is b----s----.

Insurance issues in play here, too. Towns with high-quality firefighting services, measured by distance from firehouses, density of fire hydrants, etc., pay lower property insurance rates. So some of the cost of firefighters is offset by cheaper insurance for all.
Also curious whether the definition of fire included false alarms. Multiple engines respond for any alarm at a high-rise, school or hospital. And there are a lot of false alarms, especially if, say, a hospital's alarm for a on the fritz.

+1; this is why it's not a simplistic issue.

And having lived in school dorms, I will tell you that steam from showers can set off fire alarms.

How has the average response time changed over this same period? As the population grows and spreads out, in order to keep response times constant you'd need to keep adding firefighters regardless of how many fires there are. That is most likely what's driving growth. We're not okay with it taking ten minutes for the fire engine to arrive when it used to take five.

I am certainly no supporter of too many public employees, but given the endless fire-fighter analogies (possibly outnumbered only by the baseball analogies) in the world of finance, imagine it is late 2007. You're running a large financial institution...

"Why do we employ all these risk management people? They sit around telling us what we already know. After the dot com bubble, we re-built our entire risk management infrastructure. Now we have a bunch of over-trained PhDs worrying about fighting fires that won't happen. They're dead weight cutting into my bottom line."

In the south of Italy there have been cases of Guardie Forestali (Forest Guards, also used for fire control outside towns) starting fires themselves to avoid reduction of labor force. At some point the situation seemed more of a blackmail: hire more of us or we will burn the region.
The trend shown here is consistent with a blackmailing situation.

Btw in Italy the effect of that is that there are 30000 Guardie Forestali in Sicily (out of 5M people), 17000 in Calabria (out of 2M people) and 600 in Lombardia (out of 10M people). Of course the numbers are not easy to compare, since the jobs of GF is overlapped by many other corps. But they are still interesting numbers.

I reply to myself for a small clarification, I have used the term "Guardie Forestali" while the proper term is "Operai Forestali".
The two terms are used quite loosely in Italy, but they are different: the first group is paid by the central government, while only the second, wider, group has a regional base.
Of course those statistics are referred to the second one.

There is seriously nothing funnier than the spectacle of libertarians - people supposedly well-versed in the idea of unintended consequences - cheering on the firing of people that protect people from fires.

You clearly didn't read the article (or even the title), which stated that firefighters do not actually spend their time fighting fires.

For example, yesterday in DC I saw a full hook-and-ladder rig arriving near my building. They were there to assist a homeless man who was on the side of the road.

It is worth noting that this took place in Foggy Bottom about three blocks away from GW Hospital, which has ambulances onsite. And yet a fully-crewed gigantic hook-and-ladder from a station further away was sent instead. Beyond ridiculous.

Maybe the lefties could be moved by the argument that the truck from your anecdote released a lot of carbon dioxide for a banal task.

Wow, crossing a double Y graph . . . how weaselly and dishonest.

Since 1985, much of the population growth has been in the Southwestern region, where fires are most dangerous. Considering the most of those states have seen anywhere between 75% to 300% growth, it makes sense that firefighter ranks would also see some growth, as the costs of a massive wildfire become larger.

Would last week's Colorado wildfire be classified as "1" fire?

I claim that all of these graphs are misleading because they omit the data pertaining to cat rescue.

Could not agree more. The solution is to lucidly communicate budget constraints and tradeoffs to the general public. In an ideal world these debates would take place before elections.

it costs $3,500 every time a fire truck pulls out of a fire station in Washington, DC

Is that the average cost or the marginal cost?

Average. Unless you're paying your firefighters on commission. (Wow, is that a bad idea.) So the number must be an average and hence meaningless, unless you reduce the cost base on average.

We had a house burn down in Princeton a few weeks ago. Perhaps 5 or 6 trucks, assorted support vehicles and perhaps 30-40 uniformed fire fighters were on the scene. There was not much to do but watch the house burn down. Once the fire is in the attic, basically, it has to burn through the roof before they can get the water on it. And did they ever! I would guess they pumped 100,000 gallons into the building while I was standing there. Anything not burned by the fire was destroyed by water damage. The house is a total loss (which may not be a total loss, as it was a 60s rancher).

So what did the fire fighters actually accomplish? They prevented the fire from spreading to the neighboring houses, which is good. They added no other value. The burned down house is a write-off either way.

They added no other value.

That's like saying chemotherapy added no other value than preventing metastasis.

So, because the fire was already out of control, the fire fighters were unable to control it. We they late to the fire because the fire report was too late, or because the fire station was too far away on congested roads to arrive in time to stop it?

If 5 or 6 trucks showed up, it was a multiple alarm fire, which means more than one station responded because of the size of the fire. That would probably have at a minimum triggered mutual aid with neighboring departments, which would have alerted them to responding to calls in Princeton.

And if firefighters respond based on possible need that doesn't materialize, say the first crew on scene not knowing if they need to enter the burning structure for a rescue, they will remain until they have another call, or its clear they have nothing to do but return to station. A truck and crew on scene not engaged is still able to respond to calls, perhaps faster - they are already suited up and the engine running.

If it's average costs (which I what I thought when I read it), then Alex's comment "25 calls in a 24 hour shift is not uncommon so this adds up quickly" make zero sense.

It is interessting that the examples of government waste are almost always at the local level but the policy implication is to reduce marginal tax rates on upper income earners. I can't figure that one out. Can't "conservatives" even figure out which beast they want to starve?

In my relatively new community, I asked some local firemen what they actually did every day. They weren't idle. However, they stated that "99% of our work is not fire related". What did they actually do? Almost entirely EMT work of one kind or another.

This post illustrates why economists would never make it in the business world. And, why they should take some business courses.

Let's take this post apart, piece by piece.

1. Avoided costs. Businesses measure whether they should do something not only based on what costs they pay, but also what costs they avoid. No discussion. What is the "but for" world.

2. Incomplete product or service specification. Does the fire department include Emergency Medical Service responders. If so, what is the significance of the number of fires if the firemen are primarily responding to other emergencies, such as ems. The services of firemen also include fire inspections--so, declining fires may represent the result of more fire personnel, or better deployment to minimize other costs.

3. Fixed or variable costs as measurement. If you HAVE to have a fire department, and you measure costs based on fire deployment, of course the cost per fire will be high. Let's say it costs $3 million to build the firestation, and $400 k for personnel, and the fire station responds to one fire a year....responds to 100 fires a year....etc. If you measure fixed into it, you are going to have different numbers, despite the fact that it's the same fire station. What you need to look at variable costs....the additional worker, the additional measure efficiency.

4. Multiproduct cost reduction. If you have fixed costs, and you make the employee participate in other activities, marginal costs are close to zero, if you would have had to have had the employee there anyway waiting for a fire. So, to criticize or imply that fireman are just adding to activities to increase employment is not merited by the have to look at fixed costs, and whether there is a marginal cost for what the added activity was, and then measure that marginal cost against the marginal cost of someone else doing the same activity.

I don't know what the optimal number of fire fighters is, and I'm guessing no one else does either. Therefore, why not leave the business to markets? Serious question: why not let let private firms handle fire fighting and then mandate, simlar to auto insurance, that all building owners purchase fire insurance (Kind of like this I suppose: -- those without neighbors closer than, say, a 75 foot radius could be exempt). What is the argument against? I am trying to be open minded here.

This definitely makes me think that we need to close firehouses. Let's start ... not with the one closest to my apartment. Traffic can be heavy in my neighborhood, so having that one stay open is important. Just in case. Maybe let's close the one closest to that other guy's place. Yes, his for sure. Not mine.

In Los Angeles, it turns out that one receives care much more quickly from a Kaiser Permanente hospital if one arrives in a fire department emergency vehicle than if one is driven to the hospital in a private car after making an appointment, waiting in the waiting room, etc

It appears that the mode of transportation is the only criterion for receiving immediate care. So Kaiser Permanente members can leverage free public resources to significantly enhance their experience with their private medical insurance organization.

It's definitely a win-win-win situation. More jobs are created for firefighters which stimulates the local economy. Speedier care is provided to patients, thus saving lives and providing a higher level of patient comfort. And family members who might otherwise waste time transporting the patient are now free to stay home and order more products on Home Shopping Network, which stimulates the global economy.

What's not to love? This is exactly the kind of "public-private partnership" that will make medical care more affordable and efficient. Way to forge a path to a better America. Bravo Los Angeles!

An interesting article, but there are problems I see with it.

First, the cost to respond to an incident in DC seems crazy to me. If the crew is paid and on duty, the cost is increased fuel and equipment usage, and for a large percentage of the calls - based on my experience here - there is no equipment used, so the incremental cost is a few bucks for a gallon or two of diesel fuel. They would have been paid for their time anyway, regardless of what they were doing, so why is it so high there? Not a clue, and I don't trust that analysis without a lot more data.

The article is correct about medical aid calls outnumbering fire calls. That's been true for a very long time. Then, however, it asks about whether the idea of sending fire fighters to medical aids is a good idea. I have to wonder about that...

Fires are big, expensive - though relatively rare - things. When one happens, you need lots of people to get it under control quickly so it doesn't spread and do scads of damage. The FD sends a lot of gear to everything to handle that edge case and keep a small incident from getting out of hand. It's a very deliberate practice, and it matters in any location, though it is perhaps easiest to see in rural, wooded areas. If a house is on fire and you send one engine with one crew, they might not be able to put it out before it gets into the woods and starts racing up the hill towards other homes. Send 5 engines, though, and you've got a much better shot at stopping it cold, and if they aren't actually needed the other engines just turn around and go home, for almost no additional cost since they were already on duty anyway.

To keep fires from getting away, you need equipment near the places where those fires might happen. (Driving an hour to get to downtown SF to put out a fire would be a bad thing, I suspect. You only want to be a few blocks away if at all possible, right? Seems obvious to me...) OK, assuming that's right, you have all this fire equipment scattered around anyway, waiting to respond to low frequency events. At some level that is a waste... they could be doing something else with their idle time. (Not that they are completely idle... maintenance and training take quite a bit of time, but there is time when they could be doing other things.) So why not have them respond to medical aid calls?

Unless a locality wants to staff up and equip its ambulance service to be as dense as its fire service, it seems that sending fire folks to medical aid calls is a reasonable idea. Often they will get there first, and so can possibly save lives. As for sending too many people to a medical aid call, while I understand what that looks like, the number of roles that might need to be played during such a call is larger than you might think:

* radio operator, to update the incoming ambulance on the location, access, patient condition, etc.
* 2 people doing CPR
* someone else talking to the reporting party, to get as much history as they can
* 2 people directing traffic or doing crowd control
* one person gathering the victim's prescriptions to travel to the hospital with the victim so the doctor there has a clue about what they are taking

That's 7 - more than are ever on just one engine - and we haven't got a paramedic on staff yet, pushing drugs for something like a stroke. And if you're rural, that stroke victim might not make it at all unless he is put on a helicopter and flown to the trauma center 50 miles away.

Then let's add another complication, one I have personally seen: the victim weighs 350 pounds, is unconscious, and is in a second floor bedroom which is accessibly only via a narrow, twisting staircase. You cannot get the ambulance gurney up there at all, so the patient has to be carried down the stairs. When I helped with that case, we used something like 8 guys and a carry-all to pass the victim down the stairs. And while we were doing that several of the other roles were still going on.

It is, of course, possible to do much of the above with fewer people, but if you're trying to save lives, time may well count. And as with fires, sometimes it counts more than other times, so having more people available to help can make a great deal of difference.

Having spent time as a volunteer fire fighter, and living in a rural area where the ambulance is often 15 minutes away, minimum, I think there is quite a bit to recommend the current scheme. There is always room for improvement - particularly in large cities, where perhaps medical aid gets to the scene much more quickly - but overall I think you're going to have the fire guys around anyway, so they might as well come along.

If you don't have the fire guys, I sure hope you don't have any fires get away on a windy day.

+1 Thanks for pointing out network efficiencies between different services and network densities leading to different outcomes.

Since I live in Colorado Springs, where two weeks ago a wildfire moved into the city, burned 346 homes, killed two people and caused $352.6 million worth of damage, this is a timely discussion. While Forest Service firefighters were the front-line troops in combating the blaze, the city's firefighters of course responded en masse once the houses started burning - and they called up firefighters from all over the state to help.

Now, even in Colorado, that's a pretty rare event, but.... without the ability to have that massive response, it is reasonable to think that a quarter of the city would have burned, possibly quite a bit more. Given the potential cost of that, it may be that this one event justified decades worth of often idle firefighters. Or maybe there's a more efficient way to be prepared for that kind of rare catastrophe.

In any case, I think considering this type of worst-case scenario may offer a better perspective than simply looking at the cost-benefit ratio of sending out a ladder truck to minor traffic accidents.

Given the number of non-fire type calls firefighters respond do (support for an ambulance crew being typical) part of me is at least a little surprised that smaller, somewhat differently equipped vehicles haven't evolved.

Unfortunately, in my experience fire chiefs have a near-pathological need to have bigger trucks than the guy down the road. They have more equipment and more capabilities, but really there's some keeping up with the Jones's...

Accommodating those larger vehicles has significant negative impacts on how new developments are built, with unnecessary pavement that hurts walkability and leads to speeding, more drainage, and urban heat island effects. Not to mention less developable area which results in less property tax for the FD's bosses. The more switched-on departments can be convinced that roundabout are okay and they really don't need 24'-wide fire lanes everywhere since they will be getting fewer calls - traffic speeds are slower so there's fewer and less-intensive crashes, and people can walk or bike and be healthier.

Glad you brought this up. About 8 year ago I worked in the state legislature of Michigan (an eye opening and disturbing experience), and I recall a constituent calling in irate that his multi-generational private ambulance business was getting eaten alive because the local fire department ran out of fires to put out, kept getting new millages passed so they could grow, and got some bill passed that assured all 911 calls would get routed through them before hitting the dispatch that private ambulance services hear and respond to.

I have long wondered about the safety concerns and inconvenience to traffic that is cause by those gigantic fire trucks zooming around to respond to medical issues that a much more suitable ambulance can handle.

That's the nature of the state; theatrical overkill.

And yet, one of the service areas that firefighters don't appear to be expanding into is...inspection and enforcement of fire codes (at least in my town). My townhome complex has fire sprinklers, and I just found out (quite by accident) that there's an annual inspection requirement (pressure check, visual inspection)...we've had quotes from anywhere between $120 and $300/household for this service from private contractors, and the only way we even knew about the inspection requirement was the appearance of a leak in one of the lines feeding the sprinkler system of one of our residents.

It's interesting to contrast the 'harm' of idle firefighters milling about doing nothing without considering the 'harm' of your sprinklers. Consider that sprinkler systems cost thousands of dollars and as you see require yearly costs to keep them running properly. Yet the fact is most of those systems will end up in the scrap pile someday without ever sparying a single drop of water on a fire. You can say the same for fire escapes, emergancy exists, fire proofing materials etc. How many fire departments worth are tied up in capital whose only purpose is to stop fires that will never happen?

The problem is that the lack of work fighting actual fires has allowed the profession to become overwhelmed by obese firefighters. Last I checked, a sprinkler system that is properly maintained will do its job when called upon. Sadly, for the 40.4% of firefighters who are obese (or were in 2001, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council), the same cannot be said. Only a minority of firefighters meet minimum recommended fitness thresholds for the profession.

40,4% ... ?

Originally, in the US & the UK firefighting was done by private firms that were paid by the insurance companies for putting out fires. Buildings had plaques on them showing who insured them so the fire fighters would know that they would be paid.

But over time the private firms were almost completely displaced by public fire fighters.

There were several reasons for this, but one important factor is that private fire fighters had no incentive to prevent fires. If there was no fire they did not get paid. So actually they had a powerful incentive to start fires so they could earn money fighting it.

Incentives matter!!!!!

Given this background over the displacement of private firefighters maybe your data showing a low number of fires just shows that public fire fighters are actually just doing a much better job of preventing fires than you want to give them credit for.

Featherbedding with firemen. Another instance in this republic of Nero fiddling while Rome burns...

I am a professional firefighter and have prepared budgets for my department. The increase of firefighters is simply an increase in population and an increase in density in the suburbs. If you live in house where a fire in your neighbors house can spread to your house then you need a fire engine within 5 minutes or less. This situation is not handled well by volunteer departments which are mostly in rural areas where the likelihood of fire spread is small.

A much more informative graph would have been to plot city fire departments’ staffing ( New York, Chicago etc.) versus fires over time. One would find the staffing levels and fires have decreased. While the staffing has decreased slower than fires this is to be expected since they have to operate from the constraint that all residences are covered within 5 minutes. (For example, a slow fire house that only has a few fires a year could not be closed with the reduction in fires if it is the only house that can serve the area within 5 minutes.)

Adding fire engines to medical calls has been a boon to public welfare. Engines respond to emergencies much quicker than an ambulance crew and at much lower cost since most of the cost is sunk. Engines respond in whole to be available if there is a fire. They respond to minor emergencies because triage over the phone is very inaccurate. Many times calls come in for something minor that turns out to be major and vic versa; identifying the small subset of calls where life and death is time dependent is impossible for a dispatch center.

Mr. Tabarrok, I enjoy reading your posts and hope you would look into this further and not just accept what some politicians and reporters say. (The 3,500 dollar figure is ridiculous; I usually only hear that from ignorant politicians. Its like dividing your house insurance policy by number of fires; my policy is costing me infinity.)

How is the time estimate for fire spread calculated? 5 minutes does seem a bit of an overkill. But I'm no expert.

I am a different Bill, and congratulate you for your insightful comments, but don't expect this site to support government activities, unless their own house is burning.

Thank you for your comments. Applying the $3,500 per call figure to a house that runs 25 calls per day is not only misleading but also absurd. That would imply that in 4 days they spend the equivalent of a brand new fire engine. Again, absurd. That figure was probably arrived at by dividing annual cost over number of runs in a very slow house, and applying the result to a busy house.
That Nightline would make this foolish comparison is no surprise. But i did not expect MR to quote that number. (And of course, at the end, blame the Union for something)
Disclaimer: I am a career firefighter.

So what are the priorities? If a hook and ladder is at a car accident and a fire call comes in, do they leave? If they're fighting a blaze at a dumpy split-level and are informed of a downed power line do they take off for that?

Fire spreads very rapidly; faster today since plastics burn at a higher temperature than wood and its 5 minutes once somebody calls not when the fire starts. In my jurisdiction a fire engine would leave a non-life-threatening call to go to a fire or life-threatening call.


I have serious doubts about the cost effectiveness of fire fighters. Let me list a few gripes and give you a chance to respond.
1. Residential fire sprinklers: These were required in my house since I live in a brush fire area. They added about $10,000 to the cost of my house. There has been a minor saving on my fire insurance, but nowhere near enough to offset the cost. Sprinklers would, of course, be useless at preventing a brush fire, and there is a small risk that they will go off accidentally and flood my house. The fire sprinkler requirement only protects me from myself.
2. Brush clearance requirements: I have to clear brush 200 feet from my house, which costs about $2000 every year. My fire insurance costs half that much. Other counties (I'm in LA) require just 35 feet. Brush clearance requirements should be left up to my fire insurance company, not the fire department.
3. Residential water tanks and hydrant: These were also required when I built my house, and added about $5000 to cost. When a brush fire hit a few years ago (The Buckweed fire in Acton/Canyon Country) the responding firefighters did no connect to it, or to any other hydrant in the neighborhood. They said the fire would sweep through before they could even connect to it. So why require it? I recognize that there could be some benefit, but what about the cost? The fire department seems content with high costs as long as other people are the ones who pay.
4. Street hydrants are spaced about every 400' in most areas. Cost is probably $5000 apiece. Would you care to guess how many of those hydrants ever get used? Let me make a wild guess: About $10 million worth of hydrants get installed for every hydrant that ever gets used.
5. In the Buckweed fire, about 20 firefighters parked in front of my house. Winds were 50 mph. Three of them came into my yard with shovels and snuffed out small ember fires in the yard while my daughter and I used garden hoses. Meanwhile, a wooden bridge at the end of my street burned down because nobody was there. No water trucks were used on my street, but a single truck, at a cost of about $100, could have drenched my yard. I would have rather had 1 water truck than 50 firefighters, and it would have cost less. In fact, I wonder if a line of 20 water trucks along my street might have even been able to stop the fire from crossing the street.
6. There are currently 6 fire stations within 15 minutes of my house. I'm told they cost $10 mil to build and I'm guessing about $1 mil per year to staff. I'm feeling a little overprotected, not to mention overcharged.
7. Firefighters I have met have been unfailingly kind, capable, smart, athletic and handsome. This is a clear indication that they are overpaid for what they do. When wages for a job are ridiculously high, then you get 500 guys applying for each position, and you naturally choose the best and brightest.

It's the same here in Australia. The unions have the government by the balls and keep getting increases in firefighter numbers, pay and conditions. I don't know how it can be turned around.

Remember the row a few years back when Bloomberg in NYC tried to close a couple of firehouses that hadn't had a fire call for two years and another one was a mile away. The entire professional and volunteer fire organisation is a racket. I live in a small US town with a Taj Mahal firehouse, seven fire engines and ambulances, and sundry other vehicles, and roughly three miles away in all four directions the entire set up is roughly duplicated, and so on and so on. All so a bunch of guys can play at being firemen. Fires are infrequent although there appear to be numerous car accidents which require the attendance of two or three enormous fire engines that would be suitable for Towering Inferno conflagrations and at least one ambulance. This is harsh and I don't mean to disrespect anyone's service nor am I anti public sector workers but really it's totally out of control and no one dares question it because of the emotive overtones surrounding the issue. Quite honestly the same criticisms can be made of urban and rural police departments. NYC has roughly the same population as London but the NYPD is twice the size of the Metropolitan Police.

This article hints at the real reason for this trend, but then ignores it and moves on. The total number of volunteer firefighters (more than 70% of all firefighters in the US) in this country has remained the same even while the overall population has grown. True, the number of career firefighters has grown in towns of 25,000 or more - but this growth isn't happening in the really big cities like NY or Detroit, if anything these departments are laying off firefighters. The growth in carrer firefighters is mainly in towns of 20-50,000 that were once covered by volunteer firefighters. In the past these volunteers worked in town and their employers would let them leave to cover fire calls. This isn't really the case anymore with longer commutes, etc. and towns have been forced to hire career firefighters to maintain a standard of coverage that they are comfortable with (along with the associated lower insurance rates). In a large number of cases, this isn't a huge on-duty department with nothing to do most of the time - it may be just one firefighter whose job is to respond to the call alone in the fire engine and meet any volunteers that can make it at the fire to help improve response times a little bit.

If you step back a bit and think about it, with over 70% of the firefighters in the US volunteering their time, are we really overpaying for firefighters as a country?

It's funny, Republicans are the first to argue that public-sector unions cost taxpayers millions of dollars, but when it comes to GOP stalwarts like firefighters' unions, suddenly no amount of waste is worth fussing over.

Government grants don't help. My little farming town on the edge of the suburbs got a ladder truck a couple years ago.

A ladder truck!? There's no building in town that's higher than 2 stories, what the hell do we need that for.

People get all warm and tingly when they talk about firefighters like their some great heroes. Sure it's not easy, but how much do they really do?

Just like the police department militarization it's all overblown and unneccessary but we think we need and simply couldn't survive without it.

.. It's a really obvious solution... lets Start some fires.. that will give them something to doo.. Colorado.. part dos :)

City "Fire fighters" sit on their fat asses all day washing their trucks and responding to medical calls. Am I the only one who thinks their name should be changed to "Helpers"? Hahaha.

Wild land Fire Fighters are true Fire Fighters.

Remember coming off a 22 hour shift (in the field) on a fire, with my chainsaw on my back, looked up to see all these City guys sitting on their lazy fat asses drinking sodas.


Some of you people are shameless. Firefighting and ems services are essential. Redirect your tax cuts elsewhere. Ps. I'm an aspiring FF in LA County who has been training, increasing my education, and volunteer experience for several years now. And take it from me, someone who is constantly testing for different fire depts. Lately most depts (at least where I live) can barely maintain supplying the demand of their services from an ever increasing population. Let alone hire new employees.

I live in Malibu Ca. And every time I see a Fireman (usually hanging out at the beach or getting coffee at star bucks) I feel like asking them if (they think they may actually have to work this year?) or if it is going to be another free ride. A few of my friends and I have put out more structure fires than all of the Malibu fire fighters put together. Firefighters in rural areas are an extreme waste of money! Paid to sleep! The average rural fireman fights a fire on average of every five years.... Well he stands and watches the fire due to the fact that there is usually very little they can or will do because there is no water, no access in mountainous areas and most often refuse to place themselves in danger. What should be done is to fire these overpaid unionized paid to sleep pretenders and buy the biggest fire fighting airplanes made, then deploy them immediately without having to wait for a declared state of emergency. That is how you fight and win against wildfires. Furthermore When every state in the union does the same firing of these money draining useless non firefighters and has their own planes they can have mutually beneficial assistance agreement with each state so 100s of real firefighting airplanes could converge on any fire within the USA. Wildfire problem solved!

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