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Complacency brought on by the reduced fire death toll has added to public apathy about the danger of fire. No one outside the fire service seems to know or care about the on-going fiscal crisis that struck so many fire departments in the last 20 years. The "temporary" budget cuts of the 1980s and 1990s have become permanent and taken their toll on morale and manpower. With a booming economy and a surplus of tax money rolling in, firefighter positions that were taken away when elected officials slashed the budgets are not being restored. Instead, the politicians are promising tax cuts while fire companies remain dangerously under-staffed and departments lack the personnel to carry out the aggressive fire prevention programs that save lives.
There is also a new and insidious attitude creeping up inside the fire-rescue service. I've heard people who should know better say: "We don't need as many firefighters on engines and ladder trucks because we don't respond to as many fires and a majority of our responses are now emergency medical calls." This kind of thinking is as dangerous as it is foolish. A majority of fire departments are now first responders and performing the critical role they have taken on as EMS providers. But we're still in the business of fighting fires and it still requires firefighters to do the job. Even if three out of five runs are EMS responses, the minimum staffing on engine and truck companies should be four firefighters in the typical urban or suburban district - and there are many where the fire load and risk call for a minimum of five.
In recent months, the news media have reported the reduced fire death toll and there has been a rash of television programs glorifying firefighters for their bravery and skill. It's nice and makes everyone feel good, but it doesn't help solve any problems. What's really needed are stories that point out the need for stronger codes and more tax money to maintain the proper staffing of fire companies.
Fire departments and hospital emergency rooms have become the main dispensers of medical care to the poor and there is every reason to believe this trend will continue into the 21st century. Firefighters have assumed that responsibility, along with their mission of saving lives and property in fires. The trend that has to be reversed is the illogical idea that they can continue to do more with less. But if complacency and public apathy are not overcome, the system will break down and the problems facing the fire-rescue service will be the same or worse in 2025 than they are in 1999.