Friday, September 11, 2015

First Responders Turn Out to Be First Takers

Fred  McChesney, a professor of law and economics at the University of Miami, has a fascinating essay at WaPo discussing how firefighters are way overpaid. The overpay is mostly becasue of union power versus local governments. He calls for more volunteer fire departments, which is fine, but privatized professional firefighters should not be ruled out either, where governments are completely removed from the picture, and replaced by private firms similar to private security firms.

Some snippets from the essay:
f you want to chat with a firefighter or see a fire truck up close, you can go down to the local firehouse at any time of day. The crew will probably be there, lifting weights or washing down the already gleaming red engines. Career firefighters usually live at the firehouse for a day or two, then take as many as three days off. Between eating and sleeping at the station, they mop floors, clean toilets and landscape the yard — with a few hours set aside daily for training and drills. Mid-morning, you’ll find several of them at the local supermarket doing the day’s grocery shopping.

In other words, being a firefighter these days doesn’t involve a lot of fighting fire.

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.

But oddly, as the number of fires has dropped, the ranks of firefighters have continued to grow — significantly. There are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago, but about 50 percent more people are paid to fight them.

This is no secret. Across the country, cities and towns have been trying to bring firefighting operations in line with the plummeting demand for their services. Many solutions have been attempted: reducing the length of firefighters’ shifts; merging services with neighboring towns; and instituting brownouts, which temporarily take an engine out of service. But often, these efforts have failed against obstinate unions and haven’t reversed the national increase in fire department payrolls.

Local firefighter unions have fought hard to grow their ranks as fires decline. Although private-sector unions have been diminishing, representation of government employees has remained strong, and firefighters have been among the beneficiaries. Labor contracts have allowed them to maintain healthy incomes: Firefighters earned a median salary of $45,250 in 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but overtime can more than double that. In Los Angeles, for example, the average firefighter was paid more than $142,000 in 2013, including overtime and bonuses, the Los Angeles Times reported. Exorbitant overtime costs are fueled by union-negotiated minimum-staffing levels that often mandate four firefighters per engine be on duty at all times, regardless of the cost or workload.

At the national level, the International Association of Fire Fighters has an annual budget of nearly $60 million, most of it derived from its 278,000 members. IAFF calls itself “one of the most active lobbying organizations in Washington,” advocating for pension, safety and overtime laws....

he union’s constitution forbids members from serving as volunteer firefighters, under penalty of fines or expulsion.

Union leaders and fire department chiefs have found new ways to justify their growing budgets and payrolls. In a February 2001 report, the Wall Street Journal noted that 90 percent of firehouse calls in Los Angeles, Chicago and certain other cities were to accompany ambulances to medical emergencies. “Elsewhere, to keep their employees busy, fire departments have expanded into neighborhood beautification, gang intervention, substitute-teaching and other downtime pursuits,” the newspaper added.

Not much has changed. Today, fewer than 4 percent of fire department calls are for fires. Meanwhile, requests for medical aid more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2013, to more than 21 million, according to the National Fire Prevention Association. 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. Many cities mandate that their firefighters be certified EMTs, which requires about 120 to 150 hours of training in basic emergency medical care. That’s far less than the up to 1,800 hours of training for the paramedics who staff emergency medical services. Yet paramedics are cheaper than firefighters, earning a median of $31,020 in 2012.

Still, you’ll often see a large ladder truck respond to medical calls along with an ambulance, resulting in multiple uniformed cadres when just one person needs attention. To justify this, firefighters have touted themselves as “first responders” who can answer a medical emergency faster than paramedics in an ambulance. But when they arrive without the training and equipment to deal with severe medical emergencies, they are of little use.



  1. "Still, you’ll often see a large ladder truck respond to medical calls along with an ambulance, resulting in multiple uniformed cadres when just one person needs attention."

    This is the underlying issue, as the same applies to a fender bender and multiple bored police showing up just to take insurance information.

    My mother accidentally set grease on fire in a BBQ a few years ago, which was outside and not going to hurt anyone. She called an emergency number just to ask what to do with it. They sent a fire truck full of people AND a sheriff lol...

    As silly as that response was to begin with, of course, the fire had burned out before any of them arrived.

    We don't even have to delve into theoretical anarcho-capitalism to see that these things should really be handled by local insurance and ER, or in the above case, no one at all!

  2. Public Sector Unions are anathema to good public policy. They should be banned and disbanded. But with their crony political power I don't see that happening. At least not until large numbers of municipalities start going belly up.

    1. What is this "good public policy" of which you speak?

    2. Even a bum like FDR, who was wrong about nearly everything, was opposed to Public Sector Unions. They are a plague that will lead to numerous State, County, and Municipal bankruptcies. Only then will we be rid of them.

  3. In the late 70's I had a retail store which sold ceiling fans and wood burning stoves. I heated the store with one of the stove models I sold. The store had a 50 plate glass window across the front of the building. The stove could be seen easily through the window. The Little Rock Fire Dept. got a call from some busy body who reported a whiff of smoke coming from what turned out to be the stove's chimney. So the red trucks responded by sending men scurrying up ladders to the flat roof of my building. After assessing the cause, they proceeded to pour 300 gallons of water down the pipe, ruining my stove and the carpeted floor.

    Not only do they not work all that hard, they're not all that smart either.

  4. The New York City fire department is known for causing more damage to buildings than the fires.

  5. OK so close all the fire house. We don't need any of them at all.