The Magazine

Do We Need More Firefighters?

Why John Kerry lights their fire.

Apr 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 30 • By ELI LEHRER
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FIREFIGHTERS love John Kerry, and the Massachusetts senator loves them back. The International Association of Firefighters endorsed the presumptive Democratic nominee in September 2003, when other unions had flocked to Howard Dean's banner. When the Bush campaign aired commercials featuring glimpses of 9/11 firefighters, IAFF president Harold Schaitberger declared that his organization would go after Bush "loudly and aggressively" for this "exploitation." While firefighters' financial resources can't come close to matching those of industrial unions or larger government unions, they provide an important source of campaign labor. Because they may work as few as 4 days out of 14, professional firefighters have ample time to canvass, hand out literature, and man the polls. They played a key role in allowing Kerry's more modestly funded campaign to match Dean's Iowa operation.

Schaitberger and his members have every reason to support Kerry. The senator, long a supporter of increased federal funding for fire services, promises IAFF and its comrades-in-arms a federal bonanza if he wins the election: grants to hire 100,000 more professional firefighters across the country, more funding for equipment and training, regulations that would make it easier for firefighters to qualify for disability, and extra money for local emergency planning. It's no coincidence that Kerry appeared before the firefighters' annual convention in mid-March to deliver his first major address on homeland security.

If America's 291,650 professional firefighters want to keep their jobs, indeed, they will need all the help they can get: Despite the heroic image firefighters earned on 9/11, the profession is currently staring into the abyss of obsolescence. Nearly every major city has reduced its firefighting ranks in the last three years, and, while federal grants to fire departments will remain at nearly double the levels of 2002, the Bush administration has proposed a fiscal 2005 budget that would give firefighters less federal aid than they got in 2004. Firefighting cuts at the local and federal levels make good sense because professional firefighting has become almost boring. New building practices, technology, professional emergency management, and exigencies of homeland security are sending firefighters the way of blacksmiths and slide-rule manufacturers.

The "structural blazes"--buildings on fire--that most firefighters train to deal with no longer constitute a major problem in much of the United States. Between 1977 and 2002 (the period for which comparable data are available), the National Fire Protection Association reports that the number of fires declined from 3.2 million a year to 1.6 million a year, while fire-related deaths fell from 7,400 to 3,400. Inflation-adjusted fire-related damage fell about a quarter even though real-estate values increased more than overall inflation, population rose 20 percent, and real GDP more than doubled. Arson, a major problem in many inner-city neighborhoods during the 1970s, nearly vanished as a major social issue. Fires in hotels and motels, which killed over 100 people a year as recently as the late 1960s, have become so rare the U.S. Fire Administration no longer keeps statistics on them. Were it not for a sizable increase in wildfire damage--resulting from timber management practices--the statistics would look even better.

While the U.S. Fire Administration claims that America has one of the highest fire rates in the industrialized world, the claim is simply false. According to the World Fire Statistics Center, the United States actually has the second smallest fire problem (measured in relation to GDP) among G-8 nations. Although it historically was near the high end (while lower than countries like Japan, Denmark, and Ireland), America's fire death rate has dropped to levels squarely in the middle of the major developed countries. Fair-sized cities like Irvine, California (population 145,000), have gone months without a single "working fire" that required firefighters to hook up a hydrant. Fire departments, indeed, now exist mostly as ambulance agencies; most major cities require that firefighters gain paramedic certification.

Despite having less to do, professional firefighting ranks have grown slightly faster than the population. While nobody keeps national statistics on calls for Emergency Medical Services, New York, Chicago, and Houston report that three out of four emergency calls to fire departments involve EMS rather than fire, a pattern that appears to hold for professional fire departments across the country. Looking for new tasks, fire departments have branched out to running citywide call centers (Los Angeles) or bicycle safety programs (Phoenix), and even handing out advice on babysitting (Downers Grove, Illinois).