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Fire Fighters Respond to All Hazards and Save Lives

Today’s professional fire fighters are trained to respond to all kinds of emergencies – a big difference from their predecessors 25 years ago.  

Emergency medical response, building collapse/search and rescue, high angle rescue, hazardous materials incidents, automobile accidents, swift water rescue, wildland fire fighting, infectious disease cases, domestic terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and active shooter incidents are many of the duties performed by fire fighters. And yes, they still fight fires – in 2013, more than 1 million fires were reported – with lives saved in the process.

Some attention seekers have recently quibbled with the term ‘fire fighter,’  including Fred McChesney, former big tobacco lobbyist and economist-for-hire turned University of Miami Professor, whose opinion piece, “Fewer fires, so why are there far more firefighters?” was published by The Washington Post on September 4, 2015.

For an academic, McChesney makes a pretty thin argument, and many of his statements are simply untrue.  A point-by-point take down of McChesney’s editorial would be voluminous and simplistic (for example, fire fighters don’t just respond to vehicle fires – they respond to all auto accidents/hazardous materials spills, or the fact that brownouts fail because emergency response resources are reduced and lives are put at risk).  So we will limit our rebuttal to a few key points.

First, where we agree. 

We agree that the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is a powerful union.  And we do not apologize for advocating that fire fighters deserve to earn a good living for the risks they take in the performance of their job on behalf of their communities and country.

We also agree that fires across the United States are decreasing. That is occurring for a number of reasons.  One big one is the work of fire fighters in the community on fire prevention activities, such as fire safety inspections and public education.

And while fire fighters are performing these duties, the IAFF and its affiliates are working at the federal, state and local levels to strengthen public safety through better building construction codes, promoting the use of non-toxic flame retardants and improving sprinkler and smoke detector laws that are credited with the decrease in fires and fire-related injuries and deaths. 

The former big tobacco lobbyist also erroneously states that with fewer fires, we should have fewer fire fighters – again ignoring the facts and a number of recent academic and scientific research on the subject.

Recent studies by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) examining response to high-rise and residential structure fires show that the only effective way to limit fire spread and minimize loss of life and property is by ensuring that when there is a fire, the right number of trained fire fighters arrive on the scene quickly, with the right equipment.  Another study conducted by NIST which examined fire fighter’s response to emergency medical and trauma incidents concluded that larger crew sizes improve patient care and likely increase the safety of patients and fire fighters alike.

It’s not clear if McChesney’s own house has ever been on fire with family members’ trapped, but at that moment, any citizen would say it’s the fire department’s responsibility to respond and save lives.  Is McChesney arguing that we should make less of an effort to save lives by cutting fire fighters – because that’s the effect that fewer fire fighters would have on the fire scene. And even though there are fewer fires, every single one of those fires that do occur deserve the best response a community can afford because lives are usually at risk.  

In addition, a powerful study by Arizona State University shows cities that strive to adequately staff their departments with career fire fighters are also lessening property loss and fire related injuries and death. In a three month period from June 1st through August 12th of 2012, the study shows that response to fires by an adequately staffed Phoenix Fire Department saved an estimated 2,300 jobs and $10.6 million in adjusted state tax revenues.

The professor also misleads his audience by stating that most communities have separate ambulance services, allowing readers to believe that fire departments are just duplicating work. Yet, in an overwhelming majority of communities in the United States, emergency medical care and transport are provided by career fire departments with fire fighters who maintain basic and advanced life support certifications.

This system works well because fire stations are set up throughout each community to respond quickly.  And for an elderly person in cardiac arrest, or a child with head trauma and bleeding in a car accident, having a trained fire fighter there to quickly to administer CPR or to pry the child out of the car with the jaws of life, then administer critical medical care is a priority for anyone who cares about the essential government function of saving lives.

McChesney also gets it completely wrong that the IAFF objects to ‘merged’ fire and EMS services. In fact, the IAFF has embraced and led the way at the national level for fire-based EMS service because of the efficiencies of the system.  In the late 1980’s, roughly 20% of communities across the United States were utilizing the fire-based EMS model. Through the steadfastness of the IAFF over the years, that number now stands over 80%.

While there are some hold-out communities in moving to fire-based EMS systems, those holdouts are usually attributable to failures of command staff by either attempting to ‘force’ a merge, or by failing to appropriately involve the fire fighters in their jurisdiction in the decision-making on how best to merge the systems.

And McChesney glosses over the fact that the times and needs of communities have changed.  The changes have been dramatic and significant, and so has the appropriate training and level of service provided by career fire departments. The need for reliable, efficient and effective all-hazards response can clearly be seen in dramatic events such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, the civil unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, and recent flooding, tornadoes and the wildfires across the west. Fire fighters have effectively evolved into specialized multi-role responders, requiring specialized training to meet the needs of citizens when they are at their most vulnerable. And again, because of the strategic placement of fire stations in communities, fire fighters meet those needs effectively.

The fast burning nature of wildland fires would make it impossible to protect homes effectively where tens of thousands of homes have sprouted up in areas we now call the Wildland Urban Interface.

Finally, McChesney launches into his argument that “municipalities that have stuck with the volunteer model got it right.”  He goes on to say, “Protecting a sizable city with a volunteer force is possible,” yet he does allow that, “Sheer population size may necessitate a core group of full-timers.”

He offers no facts or figures to back up that crazy talk.  He simply justifies it by saying it worked for George Washington back in the day and it worked in the 1800s and early 20th Century.  But then he goes on to write that the most deadly fires occurred in those eras.  So if the most deadly and costly fires occurred when the country was primarily using an all-volunteer fire fighting force, why is it a good idea to go back to that again?

For elected officials charged with making their community safe, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for providing optimum public safety. It is the job of every community to determine the level of emergency response services it should provide its citizens using the scientific and academic studies on establishing community risk levels that are available today.

We can’t predict if some elected leader somewhere will look at McChesney’s ill-logic and silly conclusions and decide it’s worth a consideration, but we can say that if elected leaders take a serious approach to risk assessment, they will not reach a conclusion that looks anything like McChesney’s.

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