Politicians should stop crying “fire!”

October 27, 2011

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.

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.

Photo: U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden speaks at a rally for police officers, firefighters and teachers at the U.S. Capitol in Washington October 19, 2011. Biden called on Congress to pass a proposal awaiting Senate action that would provide funding to prevent teacher layoffs and keep police officers and firefighters on the job. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts


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What a fine and timely article. Just what is needed at a time that government needs to “cut the fat but not the muscle”.


Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Perhaps the bigger problem at the center of all of this, is that American politics is based on the sensationalisation of emotive themes; more than it is guided by hard numbers and real-world statistics?

My worry here is that we could “put this fire out”, but not resolve the real problem that is starting the “fires”. We might end up playing “whack-a-mole” with various politicians’ hobby-horse themes and pet projects…

Can the system be fixed?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Nice article. This sort of thing goes beyond firefighting though. In most every department of the government and at all levels of it most budgeting gives disincentives for reducing costs. As long as departments use up their alotments in the budget they get automatic increases in the next budget. The very real notion that a great amount of waste exists in government spending is a big reason why people reject having their taxes raised. It would seem to be productive then for those who want the government to do more to find ways to make government spending more efficient. Yet it seems to be very rare that we actually see that happen.

Back on the firefighters, police, and teachers. Since when is it the responsibility of the federal government to pay for them? If there is a need for local governments to hire more people then they need to find a way to raise the money themselves. For the simple reason that if the federal government is paying most every state, county, and city will likely say that they need more.

Posted by AustinG | Report as abusive


Your post appears more specific that it is. “…if, in the modern context, the cost of maintaining an excess firefighting capacity were deemed to be less than the cost of the damage in rare but predictable events, I would put my money on the firefighters.”

We must presume you speak as the choice were yours as a leader of a municipality, but it also presumes that said municipality had sufficient funds to meet the NEEDS of it’s residents…a situation more and more rare. So, if the belt must be tightened, as this article presupposes, less police and less firefighters in a time of less crime and fewer fires per capita is an entirely logical response to a genuine problem.

Had San Francisco funded it’s fire department(s) to a level adequate for an effective response fifty years before 1906 and continued to do so through 2006, associated payroll and retirement benefits would have bankrupted the city many, many times over and, were that not the case, the “return” on such investment would result in charges being filed. 20-20 hindsight is easy, but seldom genuinely useful.

I agree, however, on the calculation(s) you now propose.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Hi CarlO,

I’m going to address your points in reverse order because, in my opinion, that makes for better overall coherence and priorities.

Ike presided in a time when the military was organizationally little different from WW I except planes, ships, subs and tanks were bigger, faster and more deadly. He had watched this country “get away” with underfunding its military shamelessly over the inter-war period ONLY because things unfolded at a pace that allowed America to mobilize it’s manpower and industry before taking meaningful offensive steps against the Axis powers. That world doesn’t exist any more.

America designs, builds and maintains the latest and greatest military hardware in the world because, as we conclusively proved in Iraq, second best is DEAD on the battlefield of today. Cuts in military spending that cause us to loose our design/construction “edge” would eliminate many of the “good paying jobs” that are a primary support to an economy already standing on one leg. These products we sell (for dollars) to other world powers for self-defense. If they are to pick up more of that cost and stay “state of the art”, they must buy MORE from us. A strong military takes a lot of sweat, genius, and is the very foundation that assures a future in which the “hopes of its children” can come to fruition. These are ALL “human resources”.

I don’t want some has-been from the early eighties making “chop” decisions. Only someone like Norman Schwartzekopf or David Patreas would I trust to evaluate the effect of increasing military cuts on paper today looking forward to those future military challenges they deem most threatening.

Federal, state and local governments are ALREADY “forced” to make “hard decisions”. Emergency preparedness is not an exception. “Less critical areas” of expenditures are alreadu under scrutiny, with little consensus since every “area” has it’s support in government. It is no longer possible to “federalize”…the “fed” is BROKE!

At the “end of the day”, governments are increasingly going to have to make do with less and GAMBLE that it all works out. Some will “win”. Some will “lose”. In my opinion government has for far too long sat at a table with it’s plate always piled high even when there are those with precious little in their plates.

We have “elevated” Congressional service from a relatively short term, uncompensated “public duty” of our “best and brightest” to a profession of the disingenuous and forked tongue who have rewarded themselves at public expense with lavish salaries, privileges and retirements even as they repeatedly betray the public interest.
This must stop!

We should all thank the Tea Party, love them or hate them, for changing the discussion from one of slowing the RATE of growth of government to reducing the size and scope of government to that originally envisioned by our founding fathers. That’s where the FAT is that no one will miss.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I am somewhat bewildered by Gregg Easterbrook’s concern with too many people protecting us from emergencies. Are we to believe the same is true for teachers and nurses and every other sector that unionizes? Me thinks I see a union buster among us.

So, while your facts may be true and your suggestion that we have more than enough firefighters may be valid, don’t discount @CarlOmunificent’s point. And also, try to veil your ulterior motive a little more discretely.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

I don’t think that “there is no doubt government budgets must shrink”. What is more accurate is that the budgets must be balanced. Raising revenue on the filthy rich is a perfectly moral thing to do to pay for wars, and other crisis.

Local governments are having to lay off fire fighters, teachers, and a host of other people because of dwindling revenue brought on by a Republican myth that the rich need to be richer to make more jobs. Well the rich aren’t making jobs so the Government must step in to do what the private sector is failing to do. To pay for that, we need to tax the rich. It’s part public safety but it’s also part public service.

One last thing: Do we do this with other unionized public servants, too? Look at the prison guard population. Crime is going down. Want to release some prisoners?

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive


Surely you can recognize how many more resources you would be using in your firefighter scenario. While some amount of prevention has its benefits it should be easy to recognize all the potential waste there is in it as well. You never know when or where a major event like that will happen, plus those who you put in charge of such things don’t always live up to their end of the deal.

After Exxon Valdez the government started taxing oil companies under the notion that the government had to be ready to deal with the next major spill. Not a bad notion really, but over 20 years and billions and billons of dollars later they weren’t prepared to deal with the spill in the Gulf. They had a plan to burn the oil on the surface, but lacked the equipment to do it. In the rush to condemn BP nobody bothered to ask those in our government what happened to all the money they had collected to prepare for this type of event.

I do agree somewhat on the military spending. Kind of depends what you mean by substantial. We have basically subsidized the military spending of the rest of the free world. We defend them and “joint” exercises are primarily our exercises. Until we aren’t running deficits when need to treat all spending under the premise that we are borrowing from future generations to pay for it. Then evaluate the spending on whether it is worth it based on that premise.

Posted by AustinG | Report as abusive

No one wants “government paralysis”, but it is the inevitable result when taxpayers seek to cut back on their government’s largess to itself at their expense. Ever notice it’s the school bus programs and filling the potholes that are cut before cutting unnecessary management and staff?

I mean no disrespect to Dr. Korb in pointing that he, like many, is NOT today best qualified to comment on a military appropriate to Cold War threats which have moderated (but not yet disappeared). His considerable experience and expertise is not, in the main, pertinent to the challenges of the present where all countries are attempting to transition their military to something sustainable that will not leave would-be aggressor nations a chink in their armor to exploit. He is pre-insurgency.

Today America ALONE has been willing and able to militarily moderate a world increasingly comprised of those who envy our economic preeminence (and hate it) and those that see our way of life as a threat to their own long term “hopes and dreams”. Allies like Pakistan(?), Iraq(?), Afghanistan(?), South America, Africa(?), Japan and Europe today question the desirability of long term American bases on their soil.

That leaves the nuclear powered modern aircraft carrier as the primary means with which we can continue to project military strength (other than by nuclear-tipped missiles). These are expensive to build, deploy and maintain, not welcome in many ports of the world, and are increasingly vulnerable to missile attack from midget economies that would choose to be adversaries. A “…recipe for a military takeover”. You’ve been reading too much conspiracy fiction.

Your fears of “…false patriots who exaggerate the ills of [America’s] representative democracy or the impotence of its economy” would have the United States government continue a domestic policy of “If we spend it they will pay”. What part of “unsustainable” don’t you understand?

While I agree that the “…republic is in dire need of reform”, you list has a distinctly leftward tilt that would do nothing to reign in excess government growth and spending. My “wish list” is shorter, if no less difficult or likely in the short term.

Even the last year has done nothing but SLOW the growth in federal spending. This country, JUST LIKE GREECE, is going to HAVE to learn to live within it’s actual and current revenues.

The first step in doing that is to separate needs from wants, fund the first, and let the rest compete for funding from “monies left”. That’s never been done before, but our politicians MUST learn how and then do it.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Mr. Easterbrook takes a perspective of convenience. He notes the increase in Firefighter numbers despite a decrease in fires and fire related deaths during a similar period of time. Has it not occurred to him that fires and fire related deaths have decreased because the number of firefighters increased? Volunteers cannot provide the same service as full time professionals.

Also, the number of volunteers is dwindling every year.
Furthermore, firefighting is only one of the services provided by firefighters. In NYC firefighters respond to emergencies including but not limited to the following:
1) Water emergencies ranging from leaky pipes to water main breaks to flooding conditions.
2) Natural gas leaks within structures and within distribution system.
3) Electrical emergencies ranging from sparking outlets to power lines down to underground distribution system fires.
4) Carbon Monoxide emergencies.
5) Defective boilers.
6) Motor vehicle accidents.
7) Hazardous Material releases.
8) Medical emergencies.
9) Unknown odors.
10) Building collapses/structural defects.
11) Steam emergencies.
12) Lockouts.
13) Transportation fires/emergencies (train, subway, planes, marine).
14) Brush Fires.

If we approach everything from a budget standpoint we have to put a dollar value on human life. Is Mr. Eastbrook prepared to do this? What if the life in question is his? Or his mother’s? Or his child’s?

The fire service is like an insurance policy. Money is tight for my family right now, like most people, but I still pay my life, homeowners and car insurance.

Because who wants to take that chance?

Posted by barbnjak | Report as abusive