Fire Politics

The Senate just rejected President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on multimillionaires in order to “create or protect 400,000 jobs for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other first responders.” Whether the country needs more teachers and police is a fair question for debate. But firefighters? Firefighting is already featherbedded.

With stricter building codes, built-in sprinkler systems and the near-universal use of smoke detectors, incidence of structure fire in the United States has declined dramatically in the past generation. In 1985, there were about 2.5 million reported fires in the U.S. Since then, fires have declined steadily, down to 1.3 million last year. The report also shows that fire deaths are down from 6,000 in 1986 to 3,100 in 2010. That’s a 48 percent decline in both fires and deaths caused by fires.

Over that same period, the number of career (not volunteer) firefighters has risen from 238,000 in 1986 to 336,000 in 2010. That’s a 41 percent increase in publicly paid firefighters during the same period that safety technology has been able to decrease the occurrence of fire.

Yet national politicians keep advocating for more firefighters. During the 2004 presidential campaign, a standard aspect of John Kerry’s stump speech was a call for federal funding for 75,000 more firefighters. Now Obama has joined this fray despite the fact that pay and retirement benefits for firefighters are high on the list of what’s causing local-government financial trouble.

What’s going on here: where’s the fire?

We all fear fire, as we should. Having more firefighters sounds like a good precaution. One factor at work is that the public does not know about the decline in fire incidence. National leaders may not know it, either. That many fire departments are overstaffed is rarely mentioned, especially by firefighters’ unions. Local politicians who bring this up — most firefighting employment is by city or county government — may be perceived as attacking motherhood and apple pie.

There’s no doubt that firefighters are heroic – this was true long before the noble sacrifice of New York City firefighters on September 11. Firefighters risk life and limb to serve the public. There is the lore of firefighting — shiny trucks and impressive uniforms — which is, in some ways, a similar calling to the military. At campaign appearances in 2004, Kerry often stood with uniformed firefighters behind him. After Osama bin-Laden was killed, Obama went to New York City to visit a firehouse and be photographed with those who lost comrades at Ground Zero. In politics, it is good to associate yourself with firefighters.

Career firefighters are mainly public-sector union members who may lend their support to whichever candidates advocate more money for them. In media symbolism, firefighters are said to represent the travails of government. A New York Times front-page article headlined “Struggling Cities Shut Firehouses in Budget Crisis,” presented the notion that fewer firefighters will mean a calamity. The 23-paragraph article never mentions that incidences of fires are declining. Nor does the article mention that the number of firefighters is up significantly, even post-recession.

Many cities have begun to use fire crews as all-around responders: taking medical calls and filling other roles. Recently there was a scandal in my county when it was revealed that union firefighters were collecting for charity while on duty – that is, billing taxpayers for wages while holding out boots to ask taxpayers for more. Firefighters were able to collect money while on the clock because they had nothing else to do.

Firefighters command the respect of the public, so there may be occasions when it makes sense to send them on smaller emergency calls. But is an enormous fire engine with a three- or four-person crew really needed to evaluate a sick senior citizen.

Beyond the fact that the number of firefighters has risen even as fires have declined, the economics of career firefighting have changed. A generation or two ago, firefighting was very dangerous and physically draining: the offer of a comfortable early retirement seemed a fair bargain for a firefighters’ peril. But deaths of firefighters have declined along with the numbers of fires. Seventy-two firefighters died on duty in 2010 — “the lowest annual total” since record keeping began, according to the National Fire Protection Association. With about 1.1 million total career and volunteer firefighters in the nation, a firefighter’s risk of death on duty last year was about one in 15,000.

Yet pay and pension structures continue to reflect the old assumption that firefighting is extremely dangerous and taxing. In New York City and Boston, firefighting jobs are keenly sought-after. California firefighters can retire at age 50 with up to 90 percent of their final year’s pay. In the November Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis details how pay and pensions for police and firefighters are a leading reason for the insolvency of many California cities. In San Jose’s budget, he writes, “the police and firefighters now eat 75 percent of all discretionary spending.”

There’s no doubt government budgets must shrink. A necessary first step is a forthright assessment of what the government really needs – and it does not need more firefighters.

[Cross-posted at Reuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for ESPN.com.