Blame Local Government For Fire Service Shortfalls

May 1, 2005

With so much attention focused on the threat of terrorism and the effort to get help from federal programs, it’s important to remember that local government has caused most of the problems that face the nation’s fire departments. It’s not Congress, the White House and the Washington bureaucracy who are responsible for the fire service’s troubles; it is mayors, city managers, county executives, and city and county councils who are to blame for policies and budget cuts that have impaired the delivery of fire-rescue services.

It came through loud and clear in a series of articles in the Boston Globe that revealed a sharp increase in fire department response times caused by a reduction in the number of firefighters and the closing of fire stations all across the country. The investigation also showed an increase in fire deaths and property loss when response times increased. The Globe’s investigative team, led by correspondent Bill Dedman, analyzed 3.3 million building fires from 1986 to 2002, as reported by 20,000 fire departments to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), which is part of the U.S. Fire Administration. (Firehouse® Contributing Editor Vincent Dunn, a retired FDNY deputy chief, was an advisor to the Globe team.) Here are their key findings:

  • In 1986, 75% of the nation’s career fire departments reached a structure fire within six minutes of receiving an alarm. By 2002, only 58% of the fully paid departments were able to meet that standard 90% of the time.
For the volunteer and combination departments, 23% were on the scene of a building fire within six minutes in 1986; that dropped to a pitiful 14% by 2002.

While covering the entire nation, the Globe’s reporters naturally focused on the Boston region and found that the Boston Fire Department and the close-in suburbs had good response records. But the level of fire protection sharply deteriorated in outlying towns that are growing in population and undergoing intensive development. The series presented case histories of fires in which civilians and a firefighter died because of closed fire stations, slow response times and under-staffed companies.

Despite these tragic incidents, local elected officials have done little or nothing to improve the level of fire protection and no one seems to care. A Globe editorial pointed out: “Wealthy communities with high standards for schools, libraries, roads, police and municipal finances show an unhealthy tolerance for substandard fire service.”

This, of course, is a battle the fire-rescue service has been fighting and losing for a long time. The editorial writer expresses the frustration fire chiefs have experienced for the past 27 years – ever since California passed its infamous Proposition 13 and touched off a wave of tax and spending limitations that swept the country. That’s when local officials learned that the fire department budget was an easy place to save money because the news media and the public didn’t pay any attention and didn’t know much about it.

Four years ago, when the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) adopted its 1710 standard on response and staffing, many of us believed it would finally give the fire service a weapon to fight back against the budget cutters. The standard calls for career departments to have a response time of six minutes from the moment they receive an alarm until the first-due company, with four firefighters, reaches the scene of a structure fire. It allows one minute for dispatching, one minute to get out of the firehouse and four minutes on the road. It also calls for first-alarm companies with a minimum of 15 firefighters to be on the scene within 10 minutes.

There was a long, bitter fight inside the fire service to pass NFPA 1710 and, as far as I can see, it hasn’t had much impact. The mayors, city managers, county executives and others who tried and failed to defeat it have simply ignored it. I haven’t heard of any jurisdictions that have increased their fire department budgets to open stations or hire more firefighters in order to comply with NFPA 1710. The worst offenders still run with two- and three-person companies and have “solved” their problem by sending more under-staffed units on the first alarm, thereby stripping fire and EMS coverage in a wider area. That’s a solution?

To my knowledge, the Boston Globe series is the first time a major news organization has exposed the danger of fire department response and staffing problems. They’ve done an outstanding job and deserve the highest journalism honors for research and investigative reporting. It would be a tremendous breakthrough if other newspapers and television stations could be encouraged to do similar reporting in their regions. Bringing it out in the open is the only way to start to undo the damage that too many local jurisdictions have inflicted on their fire departments for the last 27 years. (The entire Boston Globe series of articles can be viewed at

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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