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Blue Model Blues
Where There Isn’t Fire, There’s the Blue Model

If rapid increases in fire safety have dramatically reduced the number of fires in the U.S., how come we still have so many professional firefighters? In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Fred S. McChesney writes:

[B]eing 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.

Despite the decrease in the number of fires, powerful public unions representing firefighters have kept salaries high and hiring on the increase. In an extreme example, Los Angeles saw the average firefighter making more than $142,000 in 2013 (factoring in overtime and bonuses). Furthermore, “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.”

While large cities will always need to retain a staff of professional firefighters, there are many municipalities that depend nearly entirely on volunteers. Using the example of Pasadena, Texas, McChesney argues that, for cities of a certain size, the volunteer model is not only tenable but preferable—and if all cities of this size were to follow suit, “municipalities would save more than $8.8 billion a year in base pay.”

The move to reduce the budgets of fire departments may be politically unpopular—everyone loves a firefighter, and rightly so. Americans will always be grateful to those willing to risk their lives for the public good. We should also be grateful, however, that they are forced to do so far less often today than in previous decades. Since that is true, it’s worth considering the case for re-evaluating current hiring practices. Read the whole thing here.

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  • qet

    This is all true, and yet it is also true that in the hierarchy of public employees whose overcompensation should be corrected, firefighters are not even in the Top 10. If cities were to eliminate the actual waste first, if they were to actually eliminate a significant number of unnecessary public jobs and also to significantly reduce compensation for non-essential jobs, they would probably have more success in paring back the excess enjoyed by firefighters. As this piece suggests, the effort must include not just formal dollars (salary & benefits) but union rules that increase costs. But we all know that if the firefighters strike and even one person dies in some fire, the media will gladly portray that as the fault of everybody but the firefighters. The media will even predictably blame Republicans where all levels of government are firmly in Democratic hands! And the voters will eat it up! Notwithstanding this WaPo Op-ed, the narrative in the local media will NEVER be that the firefighters are being unreasonable. It will be pointed out that just last year the police union got X, and 2 years before that the teachers’ union got Y, therefore it is unfair to deny the firefighters their Z. That is the only way in which it will be presented by the media and the only way in which it will be argued in the papers, on TV and in blog comment sections and social media.

  • wigwag

    Firefighters do more than fight fires; in most cities they are first responders for medical emergencies. Many cities have merged their ambulance corps with their fire departments which makes it appear that staffing is increasing when it isn’t necessarily so. The number of building fires and car fires may be going down but the number of brush and wild fires, especially in Southern California, are not. Heart attacks and strokes still need to be responded to as do accidents at home and on the road. Next time you need to be extracted from an automobile with the jaws of life, who do you think you want to see riding to the rescue, a firefighter or an American Interest pundit?

    Salaries aren’t necessarily determined by the value of the job in question’ that’s why professional athletes make so much more than school teachers. That’s fine; the market has a way of allocating resources in a relatively efficient manner. None of this precludes you for asking yourself; who deserves to make $142,000 per year, a firefighter who puts his life on the line by braving flames to save a dying child or a 25 year old Princeton graduate working at his first hedge fund job?

    Firefighters are courageous; hedge fund clones and high tech nerds, not so much.

    After you’ve solved the carried interest conundrum, then talk to me about firefighter salaries.

    • JR

      I understand the desire to demonize financial industry professionals. I even sympathize, hell, I sympathize completely. I would only point out that blaming a small, rich elite has been bread and butter of Latin America populist governments. The elites are doing fine, but the very poor and firefighters that we strive to protect are not doing so well. Just something to keep in mind.

      • wigwag

        I think you make a fair point, JR. Let me respond by suggesting that it really isn’t financial industry professionals who should be demonized, its the value system of American elites which includes the financial industry, the academic world and the club of journalists and pundits who’s values are ruining America.

        Who’s the average firefighter? He (or increasingly she) is a high school educated family guy who exhibits extraordinary bravery that few of us would care to emulate. While most of us are running away from danger as quickly as we can, firefighters run towards danger as quickly as they can. They wear heavy protective clothes to protect them from fighting fires during the middle of the summer when its 90 degrees and they hold hoses gushing cold water during the middle of the winter when its 10 degrees. They work weekends and holidays when most of us are home with our loved ones and, for the most part, they do all of this without endless complaining.

        The contrast with American elites couldn’t be more stark. What is it that our elites do all day long? Whether its a hedge fund guy dressed in his fancy Italian suit, a professor attired in his tweed jacket or your average journalist who’s usually dressed like a slob, they work in air-conditioned offices doing little or nothing of value. Professors scream like stuck pigs if they suffer the indignity of actually being asked to stand in front of real students and teach more than six hours a week. Journalists and pundits come and go as they like and they are little more than highly paid pontificators. Donald Trump described the hedge fund crowd perfectly when he said that they’re paper pushers who sometimes get luck and guess right.

        Maybe you agree or maybe you don’t, but I think that one of the things that has made our country great is the culture of hard work, bravery, civic commitment and honesty that once meant something in our culture. In my view, America’s firefighters and police are still emblematic of every one of those virtues. The financial class, the academics and the pundits exhibit none of them; they aren;t courageous, they don’t work hard, they aren’t honest and the only thing they are committed to is the pursuit of their own outsized influence.

        It really doesn’t matter if these elites are Republican or Democrats; it doesn’t even matter if their net worth is measured in the billions or the hundreds of thousands. What matters is that firefighters are about bravery; American elites are about greed.

        I’ve reread this post; there’s nothing that Via Meadia says that is inaccurate. The problem is that it isn’t American firefighters who are ruining America, it’s American elites who are doing that.

  • William Ockham

    Supporters of firefighter and police officers salaries always cite the dangers of these jobs as justification for their comparatively high salaries. Does anyone know the exact number of firefighters who die on the job each year? And police officers? If so please provide them.

  • Episteme

    I wonder if the costs/salary issue for other fire departments is the same basic one as the one we have here: municipal fire budgeting, like school budgeting, is voted on at its own annual election – on a separate date than other municipal elections (in the second week of February, I believe). However, because of that, the actual percentage of people coming out to vote is basically infinitesimal and heavily dominated by family, friends, and close supporters of the department. If the budget and related questions were voted on during the normal November election, however, it would likely be similar to school budgets: most years, it would pass, unless recommended increases were either too high or set up in an unpopular manner. (the school budget election used to be very heavily hyped because school board members were elected on that same date, in April – for some reason, in recent years, the board election was moved to the November date but the budget election remained alone in April and now has that same ‘fire election’ issue; both have strong local unions behind them…)

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