You may not know when or if you will have a fire in your home, when or if a member of your family will be stricken with a medical emergency or when and if your community will face a terrorist or other life threatening calamity; but what you do know is that you expect the first responders in your area to be there, be well trained and be properly equipped to deal with the situation.
This seems to have been lost on the author of a recent Washington Post piece that posed the question that if we have fewer fires today, why are there more firefighters. The author simplistically thought the answer should be that we need fewer firefighters and they should be volunteers. Here are a few reasons why that is the wrong conclusion.
While the number of career firefighters has been increasing, the number per 1,000 people has been steady.
The number of career firefighters has increased has the population size as increased. In contrast, the number of volunteer firefighters per 1,000 people has been decreasing since 1986. One reason we have more career firefighters today is that volunteers are harder to find and keep. Increased training requirements, unpredictability of when an alarm will sound, not living in community and today’s lifestyle make it harder to keep and retain volunteers. But both career and volunteer firefighters are essential to public safety.
It’s not just the number of fires that describe the problem, but the severity of the fires.
Consider a few examples. Human losses of fire in the United States are among the highest per capita in the industrial world. Climate change and other factors are having a tremendous impact on wildland urban interface fires. These fires are happening in more places, more often and causing more loss. In addition to vehicle fires, we are experiencing a new generation of transportation related fires, such as train derailments carrying large amounts of Balkan crude, a phenomenon that was a rare occurrence only a few years ago. Fires are still fatal. The death rate per 1,000 home fires has not substantially changed since 1977. Today we see about 3,000 people die in fires each year. Loss from fires is actually increasing. NFPA research shows that the loss per structure fire was 35% higher in 2013 than in 1977 (adjusted for inflation).
The reality is our nation’s first responders are our first line of defense and our offense in ordinary and extraordinary situations.
The author gives only a terse mention of firefighters being asked to do more than fight fires. The complexity and range of incidents that firefighters are being asked to respond to continues to increase including EMS, HazMat incidents and other public needs, requiring specialized training and expertise.
It was just a week or so ago that the nation recalled the horrific tragedy of 9/11. It was a solemn reminder of all those who lost their lives on that day and how it changed our expectations about what we now rely on our first responders for. The Post piece misses the point.