Fires and Firefighters

Leon Neyfakh reports that while the number of fires in the city of Boston has declined from 417 in 1975 to 40 in 2012, the number of professional firefighters has only gone down fro 1,600 in the 1980s to 1,400 now. And the cost of running the city’s fire department has increased by $43 million over the last ten years, to $185 million or 7.5 percent of Boston’s city budget. This phenomenon is not limited to Boston, as Neyfakh explains:

The number of career firefighters per capita in the United States is essentially unchanged since 1986, but of the roughly 30 million calls America’s fire departments responded to in 2011, the last year for which statistics are available, only about 1.4 million were fire-related—down by more than 50 percent since 1981, according to the National Fire Protection Association. And while the total number of calls being routed to fire departments is higher than it’s ever been, only 5 percent of them are fire related. Most had to do with medical emergencies like heart attacks and car accidents.

Defenders of the firefighting status quo insist that firefighters are uniquely well-suited to handling various medical emergencies. But it seems that there are lower-cost ways to deal with new landscape — e.g., expanding the number of EMS workers specifically trained to handle such emergencies while reducing the ranks of firefighters, as Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution has suggested.

The case of professional firefighters is an instance of the larger problem Rick Hess and others have identified: the terms of public sector employment tend to be inflexible, for a variety of historical and political reasons, and so it is difficult for managers to respond to changing circumstances, which might require organizational innovation to deliver more value and to contain cost growth. Firefighters, like police officers and teachers, are held in high esteem by the public, so when public officials propose reforms that might harm their interests, or rather that might harm the interests of the median public employee, they can mount highly effective public campaigns on their own behalf. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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