Salka: Globe Article on Boston FD Incomplete and Incorrect

I read the recent Boston Globe article titled, “Plenty of Firefighters, But Where are the Fires?” and tried to figure out exactly what they were complaining about. Oh, I know it’s money, but most of the other issues they raised seemed relatively minor or way off the mark.

The Globe says that “as ‘emergency’ changes its meaning, some critics are arguing it’s time to revisit a century old system”. Well, if the people at the Globe took their heads out of their inkwells they would see that this is and has already been happening. Unlike a century ago firefighters are responding to, operating at and training for every type of emergency imaginable. In addition to fires, fire departments respond to and handle confined space incidents, high angle rescues, swift water rescues, hazardous materials incidents, terrorist threats, flooding conditions, utility emergencies, medical emergencies and much more. This enormous increase in the type and scope of incidents that fire departments handle have resulted in the total number of emergency calls being higher now than ever! Let me repeat, ever!

Let’s talk a little about fires. The Globe says major fires are “vanishingly rare” and that they account for only five percent of all calls. Major fires are hard to describe but generally could mean multiple alarms. That is true but major fires all start as small or moderately sized fires. Firefighting technology, tools and tactics have evolved dramatically over the past 50 years and many small, one-alarm fires are now routinely extinguished and never develop into a multiple alarm blaze. This results in many less large scale fires, which are counted and monitored and many more smaller and tactically successful fires which never make the scoreboard. Also, comparing fires anytime with the numbers from 1976 or 1981 or any of those well known and documented “war years” is simply improper and inaccurate. Those were a short 10 or so years of out of control fire activity that eventually subsided and has never again been repeated. When looking at fire trends and numbers and totals, longer periods need to be examined and short-term spikes discounted.

Here are some more interesting fire facts:

  • Fire is the largest single cause of property loss in the United States. More than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and wind combined. In the past 10 years, fires have accounted for over $120 billion in direct losses and billions more in related costs.
  • Every 23 seconds a fire department responds to a reported fire.
  • A structure fire occurs every 66 seconds and a home fire occurs every 85 seconds!

In 2012 there were 1,375,000 fires that killed 2,855 people and caused $12.4 billion in property damage/loss.

Even if we knew for sure that only one fire per week would occur in our community, wouldn’t we need to be ready? Certainly, and that is exactly what fire departments do. They maintain the  number of companies, housed in the number of fire stations, staffed by the number of firefighters that can be reasonably expected to respond and operate quickly enough to extinguish a fire in a building. That operation saves the building so the owner can continue to pay property taxes. It saves the stores or commercial occupancies who continue to pay taxes and salaries to the employees and service to the community. It saves the homes and apartments so the citizens can continue to live and work and prosper in that community. Every “little” fire that is quickly handled by the fire department has a long line of beneficiaries. Obviously fire departments also build some redundancy into the system so that more than one incident can be handled at the same time. The change in the number of fires has also allowed the fire service to expand the number and type of incidents they can handle while not fighting fires. Most departments also have developed a mutual aid system where neighboring departments can lend a hand to adjoining departments when needed. So this century-old system has evolved and changed and adapted to the current needs of todays communities quite well.

Whether firefighters arrive on a large, lumbering ladder truck or a new shiny ambulance to perform CPR on a citizen, stop a gas leak in a structure or find a lost child in the woods, does it matter? The great thing about fire trucks is we can fight a fire, perform CPR or handle a flooded basement with it, and respond to incident after incident and get the job done.

One last, but vital, point about fire departments. They are graded by insurance organizations and those grades directly affect the insurance premiums paid by both residential and commercial customers. The rating considers factors such as fire station distribution,  equipment carried, staffing, training and other factors. When any of these factors are diminished or reduced it can cost the taxpayers via a significant increase in insurance premiums.  One city in the state of Texas considered reducing the fire department budget by 1.8 million dollars by decreasing staffing and closing and browning out companies. It was determined that those reductions in the fire department, which would save the city 1.8 million dollars, would cost the taxpayers over 20 million dollars in increased insurance premiums. Needless to say the reductions were not adopted.

So let’s do a little review here;

  • Fire departments are responding to more alarms today than ever before
  • Serious fires are down, but fire is still the largest single cause of property loss in the U.S.
  • Fire departments respond to fires and many other types of emergencies and incidents
  • Fire kills between 2,500 and 3,000 people every year
  • A structure fire occurs every 66 seconds in America
  • The better equipped and staffed and trained a department is, the lower the insurance premiums are for that community.

Seems to me the Boston Globe should have been able to uncover these basic facts about fire departments, but it was my pleasure assisting them in their balanced and unbiased reporting.