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Core Services

November 7, 2012

Is fire service a core function of local government? If so, when did this happen and why?

Protecting public safety usually ranks above all other priorities when citizens weigh-in on government expenditures. Citizens clearly see a role for government when it comes to protecting them from others’ malevolent actions and events beyond their own control. But the situations that generate citizens’ concern for safety often fall well outside the traditional role of firefighters.

For centuries, literally, municipal governments had little or no role in providing protection against fire. Where organized fire protection was provided, it usually fell to private interests to organize and deliver these services. In the United States, community volunteers and insurers played prominent roles in establishing and organizing fire services for most of the first two centuries of North American settlement.

When government stepped in at the beginning of the 20th century, it did so reluctantly and mostly to restore order. The incendiary behavior of firefighters had become as much a hazard as the conflagrations that threatened many overcrowded cities.

For most of the first half of the 20th century, fire posed a real and growing threat in most American cities. These days, the trend has clearly been reversed. Fire incidents and fire deaths are declining everywhere, with the latter falling by more than 60 percent since they  peaked in the early 1970s. The reasons for this improvement have less to do with the work of firefighters than with the efficiency and effectiveness of local government’s other core services.

Public safety services are but one example of how government employs the police power to promote the health, safety and welfare of communities. Indeed, firefighting itself is less an exercise of that power than an exception to it. Firefighters are the only public officials to whom we routinely permit entry to  private property on official business without first obtaining permission or a warrant.

The more conventional application of the police power to control development and construction practices receives too little credit for creating livable and vibrant cities. In fact, people are more likely to blame local regulators for stifling growth than promoting prosperity.

Although firefighters generally enjoy enviable public support, they can hardly take credit for making cities successful even if you believe they keep people safe. In contrast, building officials, zoning administrators, planners and public works officials exert a much more moderate and mediating influence over the sometimes chaotic and often conflicting market forces driving development in our cities even as they operate out of sight and at the margins public approval.

Over the past few years, police and firefighters were often spared the budget ax while other public services were slashed or eliminated altogether. Those public safety agencies that did implement cutbacks often did everything possible to preserve frontline staffing rather than cutting services.

Today, fire service agencies are among the most responsive of all public services. Firefighters still respond immediately to almost every call they receive. Unfortunately, we have little evidence that their prompt response makes much difference.

As the number of fires has decreased, the total number of incidents attended by firefighters has steadily increased. As the numbers rise, so too does the proportion of incidents that do not constitute emergencies. These days, medical calls account for more than 70 percent of fire service responses while fires amount to less than five percent. We now expect firefighters to respond when no one else will. Consequently, firefighters respond to a wide range of calls that do not require much less benefit from a sense of urgency.

Firefighters and fire chiefs routinely argue that this kind of “mission creep” is not only reasonable but beneficial because it increases the productivity of firefighters. This thinking usually reflects the failure to acknowledge the difference between productivity and efficiency.

Productivity has more to do with the amount of work performed over a period of time. Efficiency describes the value of that work as it relates to the difference between all inputs and all outputs. Both measures tend to neglect the very fuzzy relationship to outcomes that accompanies most efforts to improve public services. Even when firefighters are productive, their labors rarely prove economically efficient.

The communities positioned to make the most of today’s fiscal challenges recognize the core functions of government include activities that regulate and promote prosperity in addition to preserving order. Public safety executives in these communities can do themselves and their citizens a big favor by looking beyond cost-saving strategies. Real innovation will come from aligning public safety services with efforts to promote community outcomes rather than preserving the status quo.

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