Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fires and the market for fire fighters

We are winning our ancient battle against fire: it turns out that fighting fires with fire fighters, and with fire-resistant construction is working, and big urban fires are becoming increasingly rare.  Leon Neyfakh of the Boston Globe has the story.

Plenty of firefighters, but where are the fires? As ‘emergency’ changes its meaning, some critics are arguing it’s time to revisit a century-old system

"as a recent Globe story reported, city records show that major fires are becoming vanishingly rare. In 1975, there were 417 of them. Last year, there were 40. That’s a decline of more than 90 percent. A city that was once a tinderbox of wooden houses has become—thanks to better building codes, automatic sprinkler systems, and more careful behavior—a much less vulnerable place.
As this has happened, however, the number of professional firefighters in Boston has dropped only slightly, from around 1,600 in the 1980s to just over 1,400 today. The cost of running the department, meanwhile, has increased by almost $43 million over the past decade, and currently stands at $185 million, or around 7.5 percent of the city’s total budget.
"FIRE USED TO routinely devastate America’s towns and cities. It wiped out almost all of Detroit in 1805, a vast swath of Chicago in 1871, and much of Boston’s downtown in 1872. Boston, as it happens, was the site of the first volunteer firefighting force in the New World: A group of about 20 neighbors who pledged in 1718 to protect one another’s homes as part of a so-called Mutual Fire Society. More formal volunteer organizations started cropping up after 1736, when Benjamin Franklin founded the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. Before long, many American cities were home to multiple volunteer fire crews, which competed to be first on the scene to collect bonuses from local governments and insurance companies. According to historians, these bonuses ultimately proved to be the undoing of the volunteer firefighter movement. By the mid-19th century, street brawling between rival companies became so common that cities started shutting them down and replacing them with professional, municipally operated fire departments."

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