The Senate just rejected President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on millionaires 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.