Your Public Unions at Work, in One Chart


From Mark Perry

If you have ever been at, say, a kids sporting event and had an ambulance or paramedics called for one of the kids, you likely also had a fire truck accompany the ambulance or paramedics.  Did you wonder why they needed a firetruck with a 6 man crew to handle a broken leg in an open field?   Its because most public firefighters unions have gotten local laws passed that require a fire engine to always accompany the paramedics.  Why?  No reason other than they are trying to make firefighters look busy so no one starts to question why we have so many sitting around doing nothing.

Union leaders and fire department chiefs have found new ways to justify their growing budgets and payrolls. In a February 2001 report, the Wall Street Journal noted that 90 percent of firehouse calls in Los Angeles, Chicago and certain other cities were to accompany ambulances to medical emergencies. “Elsewhere, to keep their employees busy, fire departments have expanded into neighborhood beautification, gang intervention, substitute-teaching and other downtime pursuits,” the newspaper added.


  1. NL7:

    I guess I feel less bad about all the times I walked past a strapping young fireman holding a boot out for donations.

    This chart suffers from the non-zero axis issue. It over-highlights the trend, and despite the very clear percentage labeling makes it subconsciously look like fires are down 95% and firefighters are up like 10,000%. It's not misleadingly labeled or anything, and this is a very common problem, but when we use pictures and graphs they will be interpreted visually.

    I assume a lot of the work reducing fire hazards has come with better building materials and more fire considerations in building construction. Also other factors, like maybe less smoking and longer-lived batteries in smoke detectors. Solution? The American public must smoke more (especially when sleepy and far from ashtrays) and change 9-volt batteries less. That'll ensure healthy demand for firefighters, and also for paramedics.

    My cousin was a firefighter for a while. As I recall, they did some rescue and car accident stuff (e.g. jaws of life) to supplement fire repair. Plus some jerk stockpiled a fireworks and ammunition that caught fire and started going off.

  2. McThag:

    Looking at the chart... Having more firefighters prevents fires from starting. We need MORE to eliminate fire once and for all!

  3. Frank Ch. Eigler:

    That is no less consistent than our host's interpretation. Yeah, should watch out for Fox Butterfield fallacies when interpreting interrelated trends.

  4. Christopher Anderson:

    My understanding of Firefighters is that they do not PREVENT fires, just react to them. So, I doubt that correlation would make sense. It seems pretty clear that the prevalence of house-fires has decreased significantly in my lifetime, just anecdotally.

  5. Mike Powers:

    Is that the union being jerks, though, or is that Concerned Citizens' Watchdog Groups Ensuring That Your Tax Dollars Are Well Spent By Finding And Eliminating Government Waste?

    That is, maybe it's some local busybodies who just get so *upset* at the thought of all those firefighters sitting around the station house waiting for a fire, and so they're requiring that those layabouts get off their duffs and work for the money they suck out of the public coffers.

  6. John O.:

    When I saw this graphic I immediately was disappointed that its good intentions are poorly expressed. The line graph is just two lines that run in opposite directions to show trends, but while firefighters primary job is to put out fires, they do respond to other types of accidents and disasters. And by limiting the downward trend to only fires, the data is not considering all of what a firefighter does during a shift.

    A better representation would likely be not a line graph but a spreadsheet showing the decline of pure structure fire calls and the increase in other calls. Firefighters do respond to just about anything but the numbers need to be fully there to allow proper consideration that yes there are too many firefighters on the city's payroll.

  7. ErikTheRed:

    This is a wonderful example of the response I have for people who believe that competition in these markets would create so much duplication of services as to be less efficient. In the industries that I'm intimately familiar with (I've run companies or departments in them), I've seen inefficiencies so extreme that you could easily fit five or six competitors, each providing completely duplicative services, for about the same money as the government was spending. However, in the real world each competitor would be scaled down a bit because each would not be taking 100% of the business involved - so you could probably have a healthy ecosystem of 15-25 providers competing. Not only would you have significantly better outcomes for the services (and more specific customization, etc.), you'd also have far more reserve capacity available to cover unanticipated spikes in demand.

  8. Frank Ch. Eigler:

    That's a good point. (Firefighters might deter fires to some extent, but that's more of an inspection / education role, not an active firefighter role, and could well be done by different organizations.)

  9. Mondak:

    My grandfather was a volunteer fireman in Prospect Park, NJ for 20+ years.

    My father was a volunteer fireman in Wayne, NJ for 10 years.

    I am not, nor are any of my three brothers firemen.

    Want to watch a fireman in California lose his mind? Ask him why there are no volunteer firemen in CA?

    Fire fighting (particularly in a place like CA) is a classic "build your church for easter sunday" problem. Do you want cold pews the rest of the year making the church seem empty and lifeless, just so you can have enough seats to make sure everyone who comes once a year feel welcome?

    When the wind and weather kick up and something sparks a fire, it gets bad fast. Plus, if it is hot and windy in one city, other cities can only lend so many resources because they have to protect their own areas if something comes up. So what do you do? You staff as if you have the one big event that might happen every 25 years . . . 365 days a year for 25 years . . . and still give examples to the local government why you don't have enough staff. And you don't. And never will.

    The fire chief in my town is a friend, neighbor and overall wonderful, hard working, honest fellow. But when I suggest that a volunteer layer be added to the existing crews to bolster ranks for just large events he can't even process the thought. It is like I asked him to use 90 year old, special needs folks. When his argument is at all coherent, it usually centers on specialized training on things like Jaws of life equipment, truck driving certifications, and life saving skills. It also goes into things like bad decision making and domino effects (running into burning building and getting stuck, injured taking other resources away from the fire making things overall worse.

    In fact, there are a glut of people who would love to be firemen. Whenever there is a single opening for a new fireman, thousands if not tens of thousands of applications are received. This won't be a rant about how much these fellows are paid, but there is a supply and demand hint here at a broken market. My town in particular has WONDERFUL new equipment across the board. The Mayor / town council is happy to spend on these things. What they are VERY cautious of is hiring. They can sell a truck, but they can't fire a massive unfunded pension. As such they even have cold spares that are un-crewed since as I understand it, the resale market on trucks is fairly poor.

    Many of these would be firemen go on to do other things instead. Not to say I ever considered it, but I own a technology company. I have a flexible schedule and am in fantastic shape. I even had a CDL license which was HAZMAT and Tanker endorsed that I let expire due to lack of use. There are lots of able bodied, smart, hard working
    people who would love to fight fires as needed. They would also be
    happy to keep up training work multiple times a year and pass ongoing
    physical fitness requirements. They don't need to drive a truck. They don't need to operate hydros. But making a fire break by cutting down trees and brush, humping hoses and other equipment, is tough, physical work. I give orders professionally, but I can happily take orders and carry them out in a fireman role. I bet there are plenty of others who would make FANTASTIC firemen, but choose other paths. Being a fireman is not magic. It can be done by mortals.

    The unions are lining their pockets and artificially controlling pricing, but worse, they are making us overall less safe in the process.

  10. James:

    Actually, firefighters don't accompany the ambulance. If you call 911 for any medical issue, first the fire trucks are dispatched to your house. They will assess the situation, and decide if an ambulance is needed. At that time, an ambulance will be dispatched if they feel it is needed. The patient will have to wait for these 2 response times plus the time needed to assess them and then the transit time to reach the hospital.

    As long as the firefighters are the first to respond, the number of firefighters will correspond to the growth of the area of the city. Since everyone wants short response times, but most stations aren't that busy, infill doesn't increase the number of firefighters as much as suburb growth. As suburbs grow, more stations are needed to cut travel times to any given location.

  11. Brad Warbiany:

    My only issue with the graph is that it looks like the rates of increase and decrease are the same, and this is made doubly difficult because it shows a 56% increase in firefighters and 47% decrease in fires. Because the slope of the line is the same rate but inverted, and because the percentages are similar, it makes your brain inherently jump to thinking the fires were cut in half (correct) and the number of firefighters doubled (incorrect).

    Again, it's not something I'd call deceptive, necessarily. It is properly labeled, so anyone with a bit of numeracy can mentally realize that a 56% increase to a number is a much different change than a 47% decrease. But it would be more "accurate" in the sense of how your brain interprets a graph to have the slope of the firefighter increase to be roughly half that of the fire decrease.

  12. ErikEssig:

    To be fair, I'm only aware of volunteer firefighters holding out the boot, your mileage may vary.
    Totally agree on the non-zero axis issue which drives me nuts. I like Mark Perry, but many of his charts suffer from this.

  13. Brad Warbiany:

    Pretty sure McThag was being sarcastic.

  14. Brad Warbiany:

    My neighbor is a firefighter, and I never realized how much stuff they'll get called for. Here in SoCal, if there's a snake on your property, you call the fire department. I'd never even THINK that this was an acceptable call to make until I talked to him. They are also called in for structure floods. Your company building is flooding in the middle of the night? Well, call the FD!

    I'm not even entirely sure what to think of this... I didn't know that the fire department had morphed into the swiss army knife of municipal services...

  15. randian:

    So we're going to kill people in order to keep firefighters employed? If the ambulance doesn't dispatch until the firefighters get there and check things out people will die or suffer preventable worsening of their condition because of this unnecessary delay.

  16. Thomas Vincent:

    In regards to Arizona firefighters, it is interesting to look at the Flagstaff city council elections and see how much money from the Tucson and Phoenix fire unions give to Flagstaff candidates. Always wondered about that.

  17. Matthew Slyfield:

    " do respond to other types of accidents and disasters."

    True, however what you fail to note is that for those other types of accidents and disasters, the only ones that the firefighters are actually needed for are vehicle accidents as there is the possibility of a vehicle fire. Most of their other responses are make work so the public doesn't realized that they are way over staffed.

  18. Matthew Slyfield:

    No. because "Citizens' Watchdog Groups' that were genuinely interested in eliminating government waste would be asking for staff reductions in the FD, not for giving FFs unnecessary make work projects.

  19. Matthew Slyfield:

    Perhaps you would like to buy my tiger repellent? I know it works because I have never been attacked by a tiger.

  20. Matthew Slyfield:

    Perhaps true, but line firefighters have at best a negligible role in preventing fires, so there is no reason for the # of firefighters to increase at all in a time when the number of fires is decreasing.

  21. John O.:

    That's what I was trying to imply. Mundane tasks are usually helped by other people like EMS or police officers who respond first. I believe most fire departments should be reorganized so most members are volunteer reservists for when circumstance requires them to be called into service to face a problem that can't be easily done by smaller crew. The catch is that people need to understand that in order to have a proper fire reservist system, they have to be trained just as often as the military train the national guard and reserves. And our current social and political climate has long been removed from this type of citizen service.

  22. tfowler:

    You make a good point about over-staffing to cover occasional situations where a lot more people than normal are needed, but why would the amount of overstaffing grow over time, while the amount of fires drops?

  23. KN D:

    I'm somewhat surprised by the relative lack of understanding of the roles most paid Fire Departments require of their firefighters. It is also slightly frustrating to also see a disconnect between the perception and the reality of the modern day firefighter and their day-to-day responses. I blame the movies.

    Most paid Firefighters are cross-trained in several disciplines of emergency response. Additionally, each of these disciplines have multiple layers of certification. Most of these firefighters finish their academies with training in firefighting, emergency medicine, hazardous materials response, vehicular rescue, rescue specialist courses (swift-water, high-angle, trench, etc.) emergency vehicle driving, pumps and hydraulics, aerial device operations, as well as many other courses that may differ from department to department. Some jurisdictions put these firefighters through customer service classes, fire code enforcement, and emergency management familiarity classes.

    Modern emergency medical services started in the sixties and has naturally evolved into a service best suited to be provided by the Fire Department. Fire-based EMS systems have proven themselves to be the most efficient delivery model.

    Fire trucks responding with ambulances is not something new, nor is it legislated at the behest of fire unions. Without going into painful detail, the response or lack there-of, of a firetruck is usually due to the classification of the call. What you tell the 911 operator and your answers to the questions they ask you is what adds the firetruck to an EMS call. Chest pains, seizures, loss of consciousness, and many other "red flags" require a 2-man EMS crew to be augmented by the crew on the firetruck and their ability to assist if these patients do in fact require advanced life support interventions, are too heavy, are on the third floor, or the dozens of other circumstances that might require extra man-power.

    I drive a ladder truck for the City of Baltimore. I will try and give you an idea of a day that might easily be experienced by any number of firetrucks all over the United States on any given day.

    0600 Affect relief of previous shift

    0630 Non-breathing patient. Sent with Medic and EMS supervisor. Person died sometime during the night, found

    by family. Services not necessary. (Or quite easily, quite necessary)

    0800 working out.....interrupted by a fire alarm. Burned pop corn on the 17th floor.

    0845 Returning from alarm. Dispatched to a stalled elevator. Utilized specific tools to free trapped occupants. Secured

    elevator and turned over to building maintenance.

    0900 Checking equipment on truck. EMS gear, saws, SCBAs, ladders, hand tools, monitoring devices......ETC.

    1000 EMS call for seizures. Arrive to find patient not seizing. Wait 10 minutes for ambulance.

    1200 lunch.....noooooo.....EMS run, stubbed toe, not necessary. Somebody said they had trouble breathing, firetruck

    1300 Target streets of first due area. Provide installation of smoke detectors to residents that request.

    1530 EMS call...not necessary

    1630 EMS call....shooting, multiple victims, necessary

    1730 eating dinner....EMS call...not really necessary.

    2100 House fire...3 fatalities 1 adult, 2 children

    0130 return and cleaning up after fire.

    0300 Motor vehicle accident. Drunk runs a red light, entraps passenger of other vehicle, requires extrication.

    0430 Carbon Monoxide detector alarms. Residence is checked, meter shows elevated CO readings. Faulty furnace is

    identified as culprit.

    0545 Waiting desperately for last EMS run, parents wake-up to find their dead infant....SIDS

    0630 Home.......thankful that my life wasn't met with any of the aforementioned events.

    .....yes, we work 24 hour shifts in Baltimore. No, that was not a "typical" shift, but they happen like that more than you'd think............

  24. KN D:

    Fire trucks are dispatched with medic units according to the classification of the call. Firetrucks are also dispatched if the first due medic unit is on another call and the next medic unit is coming from further away. This is a general description of how it works. There are differences jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

  25. KN D:

    You're way off base with the perception you have.

  26. Mondak:

    I think Coyote's original post hits that nail on the head pretty hard. The unions drum up artificial need. They then have a new baseline (fires+other) to go on when they work on their demand multiplier.

  27. Ray Van Dolson:

    Good point. Let's also send a surgeon out with every call. And have a helicopter overhead. Just in case. Cuz people will die otherwise.

  28. randian:

    Stupid sarcasm doesn't help your point. It's a medical 911 not a fire or other disaster, sending the firefighters before the ambulance is dumb.

  29. mesocyclone:

    The chart is quite misleading, because at least here in Phoenix, the majority of calls have nothing to do with fire. Integrated Fire-EMS has been proven to save many lives. Phoenix used to have the best survival rate in the country for heart attacks as a result - statistically it added about one year to the average life span.

    I'm a private business techie, not a fire fighter, but I have monitored fire departments on scanners for decades, and Phoenix Fire Department for over 40 years. These folks get a whole lot of non-fire calls, and handle them very professionally. No doubt there is some featherbedding going on, but there is no way to tell with the data given in this post.

  30. KN D:

    Sending the firetruck before the ambulance makes an infinite amount of sense; given the fact that the firefighters are also EMTs or even Paramedics (there is a difference). They have the same equipment on board as the medic unit. The presence of a first responding firetruck can make the difference between life or death. I'm not sure how dumb that is.

  31. KN D:

    ........and if the anecdotal isn't to your liking......look into the NFPA (National Fire Protection Agency) and ISO (Insurance Services Office) standards on staffing, apparatus response times, and geographical placement of firehouses, among other considerations that might actually give you an idea of how to confidently reject correlation between number of firefighters and number of fires.

  32. J. R. Ford:

    First, the graph does not show the total number of firefighters, only the full-time firefighters are shown and they make up a minority. I suggest adding the number of volunteer firefighters to the graph since they represent more than 80 percent of the total. You will be surprised to learn that there are less of them during that time span.

    Volunteers are becoming more scarce due to the excessive training being required by local, state, and federal agencies. Add NFPA to the mix and the excess doubles. When a volunteer department can no longer find people to join they end up getting worse ISO ratings which in turn drives up the cost of your fire insurance. Consequently, they are replaced with full-time firefighters.

    But then, having the total number of firefighters on the graph would not forward the professor's political agenda.

  33. chrismalllory:

    My local city tried to train the fire department to install the flood gates in the flood walls. But the union complained that it would cut into the time the firemen have to nap, work out and visit the local cat house. So the city trained the garbage men to do it.

  34. UPLguy:

    Check out the number of firemen convicted of arson.

  35. bilbo:

    When I see them with the boot, they are raising money for charity. But still, no other charitable organization gets to use the intersection like that where I live. Seems kinda dangerous.

  36. mx:

    It makes sense though, when you consider that fire departments have specialized training and equipment that's useful for more than fighting fires. There's a reason the old story of the fire department using their ladders to rescue pets from trees sticks around. If you're equipped to dump large amounts of water on a fire, you also have the pumps and knowledge to deal with emergency flooding situations. If you're equipped to get people out of burning buildings, you also have the tools and knowledge to get people out of stuck elevators.

    And since the fire department is partially on reserve for major fires and emergencies, I'd rather see them help with non-fire situations when they aren't needed elsewhere.

  37. mx:

    It depends a lot on the local policy and the resources available. In many areas, ambulances are still dispatched as soon as possible, but it may take significantly longer for an ambulance to arrive. The EMT or paramedic-trained firefighters can start treatment immediately and contact dispatch to adjust the priority of the ambulance call based on the situation.

  38. mx:

    Even if both show up at the same time, it can still be critical to have more than two people on scene to assist, especially if the patient needs life support, has to be carried down several flights of stairs, weighs 300 lbs, etc... If there's nothing for the fire crew to do, they can clear out pretty quick.


    Ever wonder why Hostess went bankrupt. Aside from the left leaning sewer rat bottom feeders that said it was the CEO pay that killed the company. its their fault. Well you can thank the Unions. And that people scaled back on their intake of junk food. They were the cause of Hostess failure. The Union called a Strike every 6 months on Hostess to dispute the Pay even though the top bakers were making 70k a year. but that was not enough to make the Bakers union happy. THE COMPANY WAS UNJUST.
    Also hostess drivers were not allowed to deliver more than one brand of product in a vehicle. So if you wanted cupcakes. twinkees. HO HOS, apple pies in your local store, their needed to be 9 different vehicles rolling up to your loading dock. to deliver the goods.
    So you needed 8 extra drivers in which you needed to pay union fees and all the bennies to employ them. Plus all the extra fuel and vehicles. which delivered the goods in 3/4 empty vehicles. This was all in the Union contract.
    Hostess grew tired of the constant crap and shuttered the company. then the 70k baker went to 0 k
    And after a private equity company purchased the the rights to the brand. and got back into production. the UNION was right back knocking at their door wanting in,
    So you can parallel that to the firetrucks rolling down the street to get a cat out of a tree

  40. Bilbo:

    "With the police chief calling for more officers and the St. Louis Board
    of Aldermen looking for some way to fund them, UMSL criminologist Rick
    Rosenfeld has a suggestion — take the money from the fire department."

    This will cause a flame war, no doubt.

  41. John White:

    Having lived in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia, from anecdotal experience I would say that the Fire service never attends with an ambulance. The only exception would be where an auto crash has occurred as the fire service has the equipment for cutting open a car, but even then I think that would be dependant upon the crash.

    I have just checked with a friend who is a paramedic here in Wellington New Zealand, and she says for a car crash the fire service will only be called to attend based on the information of the call, e.g. does it look like someone is trapped in the car, and if there is any doubt on the part of the caller then the fire service is despatched. For a normal medical call the fire service is never despatched but maybe called if required. The ambulance service handles getting people down stairs if required, not the fire service. They have specialised trolleys for that, but if need be they are trained to carry people down.

  42. KN D:

    In most of the rest of the world; the models of emergency service delivery, and the tasking of their providers, is not comparable to those found in the US. The primary reason being that the services are separate entities.