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.