Report Claims Declining Fire Totals Change Nature of Firefighter Mission

In an era when “do more with less” is a guiding mantra for business as well as government, firefighters stand apart, seeking to “be prepared” in a world demanding greater efficiency from every walk of life, according to a report by Derek Catron posted on examiner-enterprise.com.

RELATED: Paid Firefighters: A Cost-Effective Choice

Like similar, recent reports found on places such as The Washington Post, the article seeks to mount a case againt paid firefighters based on numbers from a report from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), among other sources.

The report cites the fact that city and county departments nationwide responded to 62 percent fewer fires between 1977 and 2013, even as the number of career firefighters increased 56 percent since 1983, when the NFPA began keeping track.

To some extent, the report says, firefighters are a victim of their own success. While the nation’s population was increasing 44 percent over those four decades, the decline in fires was nearly matched with a 56 percent drop in civilian fire deaths.

The result is an undisputed, if little acknowledged, government success story, the Examiner report says. Many experts credit a 1973 federal report entitled “America Burning” with galvanizing national efforts to prevent fires and improve techniques for fighting them. Among other things, the report led to the creation of the National Fire Academy and helped prompt enhanced safety standards for building codes and materials, appliances, even clothing.

In short, buildings and cars and coffeemakers are less likely to go up in flames, and American firefighters are better trained than ever to put them out when they do.

But that success has put firefighters in a tricky spot, says the report. Since the Great Recession put a stranglehold on government budgets, fire departments across the country find themselves fending off station closures and staff reductions.

According to the report, Inflation-adjusted local fire department expenditures stood at about $45 billion in 2011, a 170 percent increase since 1980, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Fire Protection Association.

With fires accounting for just under four percent of total calls to local departments in 2013, fire departments increasingly find themselves targeted by efficiency experts who apply business model measures to government functions.

“I like to call it the ‘March of Dimes’ problem,” said Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University who’s blogged about the inefficiency of fire department management. “The March of Dimes was successful in curing polio then looked around and said, ‘Now what do we do?’ Firefighters face the same question.”

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