It's time for us to re-think this.
It's arguably the best known, least acknowledged and most inconvenient truth in local government: "Fire departments" -- in the precise meaning of that label -- no longer exist anywhere in America.
Thousands of official entities bear this or a similar moniker. But given what they and their employees actually do, "Emergency Medical, Incident Response and Every-Once-in-a-While-an-Actual-Fire Department" would be far more accurate.
In 1980, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the nation's 30,000 fire departments responded to 10.8 million emergency calls. About 3 million were classified as fires. By 2013, total calls had nearly tripled to 31.6 million, while fire calls had plummeted to 1.24 million, of which just 500,000 of were actual structure fires. For America's 1.14 million career and volunteer firefighters, that works out to an average of just one structure fire every other year.
In my own community of Portland, Ore., the Fire and Rescue department's 500-plus full-time fire professionals respond to more than 70,000 911 calls each year. About 70 percent are medical calls, a typical proportion for most jurisdictions. Just 700 annual calls involve burning buildings.
In Portland, San Francisco, and many other communities, the typical 911 call results in the dispatch of both a fire truck and an ambulance. The result is an increasingly familiar tableau: Five or six gear-laden firefighters and/or ambulance personnel arriving on the scene, regardless of whether there's a fire, stroke, or a heart attack in progress -- or a passed-out homeless person on the sidewalk, or a motorist slightly dazed in a fender bender. (While cat-in-tree rescues are more urban myth than reality, they still happen.).
Fire officials vehemently defend their existing protocols. Firefighters, they say, need the extra time to suit up and board big rigs in case they must re-deploy to a real fire during a medical call. And they note that firefighters often save lives when they arrive first on the scene.
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