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Fewer Fires = Fewer Firefighters, Right? Wrong!

Fresh Excuses Leave The Same Results – A Commentary

This past week brought reports from Washington State and Missouri of the ongoing destruction of the American fire service. In Missouri we see that because there are fewer fires they need fewer firefighters. Maybe their mayor should let NIST know.

This formulation of public policy is rampant across the country these days. We had X fires and Y firefighters in 1975 and now we have 0.75X fires so we only need 0.75Y firefighters. Certainly this is faulty thinking and bad policy. It's dangerous and counterproductive and simply not the way things work in the actual world. But all arguments to the contrary can be squelched in so many minds by invoking the mantra of efficiency.

South Missourian News

Efficiency is a noble value insofar as it counters the unfortunate tendency to waste the plenitude of our world. But it has been fetishized by a culture that values success in business (read: gotta get paid) above nearly all other values. The American public, we are told, wants a government that "runs like a business." Never mind that government cannot run like a business. Its products are non-exclusionary and its methods, if they are to serve all members of the public equally (read: democratically), cannot be made profitable. Along the way to running government like a business a lot of public administrators became obsessed with the notion of efficiency. It's a fantastic banner to hang out in front of the taxpayers.

City managers and politicians love this "run it like a business" dictum even if they don't themselves believe it and even though its nonsensical. This is where this prevalent notion that fewer fires necessitate fewer firefighters comes in. I suspect that the fire service is the most democratic of all local-government services. Its members hold an unparalleled commitment to service and it is quickly and readily accessible 24 hours a day by the lowliest of society and the richest in equal measure. Not so when most cuts are made.

If a city closes a station that makes two runs a week that may be a reasonable move. Dropping a company to the dangerous three-person minimum can never be a reasonable decision. And cutting stations and staff because you have "fewer" fires is irrelevant when you do have fires, which are inevitable. It is important that the fire service recognize that a lot of these decisions to cut resources can be contextualized in a larger, more powerful, line of poor reasoning and bad thinking. Only then can we really understand what is happening to the fire service beyond the immediate concerns of this year's budget and that city's staffing.

………. Patrick S. Mahoney

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