Firefighter Hysteresis

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.


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