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The chart above shows two interesting trends — while the annual number of fires in the US declined by 47% between 1983 and 2013 (from more than 2.3 million to 1.24 million), the number of paid career firefighters increased by 56.5% (from 226,600 to 354,600), according to data from the National Fire Protection Association here and here. In 1983 there were more than 10 fires in the US per career firefighter, but by 2013 there were fewer than 3.50 fires per paid career firefighter. What could explain these trends? Could it maybe be because public sector firefighter unions are involved?
That seems to be the conclusion of University of Miami professor of law and economics Fred S. McChesney, writing in the Washington Post last Friday (“Fewer fires, so why are there far more firefighters?“), here’s an excerpt:
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 (see chart).
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.
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.
As the risk of massive infernos declines, what we really need is to rethink our entire firefighting model — and how much we should be paying for it. Instead of addressing this municipal waste with patchwork plans to cut overtime and shrink staffs, many cities and towns should consider throwing out the very concept of the career firefighter and return to the tradition of volunteers.
MP: It’s a good case study in the inevitable expansion of government-funded bureaucracies and illustrates how public-sector unions have continued to grow and gain power even as unions have lost power and membership in the private sector. For example, while unions represent nearly half of all local government employees, only 7.4% of private sector employees are represented by unions.
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