Chart of the Day: Types of Fire Calls over Time

Here’s a chart from Vox about the changing trends in fire department calls, showing the number and type of fire calls over time:

fire calls over time

One common objection when a bike lane, traffic circle, median, or road diet is proposed is that emergency vehicles won’t be able to get through the now-narrowed street. I’d never thought much about the slim marginal value of the vast majority of fire calls before, but here’s one of the conclusions from the article, taken from a “libertarian economist”:

Typically, they’ll get there a minute or two before an ambulance does, and in some cases they start treatment,” Tabarrok says. “In my view, it’s mostly redundant. Other people will say that getting there earlier can save a life, but most of the time it has no bearing whatsoever.”

He points to a study conducted in Toronto that found having firefighters on the scene improved health outcomes in about one to two percent of all medical calls — essentially, instances of cardiac arrest in which they happened to arrive first. The study also found that, on average, firefighters respond to a call no more quickly than paramedics and had much less medical training.

The reason firefighters’ numbers continue to grow, he says, has more to do with their strong unions than their usefulness. This ends up being expensive for taxpayers: in Boston, the fire department consumed 7.5 percent of the city’s total budget. And even if we do want to use firefighters as extra paramedics, there are cheaper, more efficient ways of doing so. “Why are we sending these huge trucks careening through traffic just to give someone oxygen?” Tabarrok asks. “I say, ‘send the guy on a motorcycle.'”

Food for thought next time you’re in a meeting about public safety!  (There’s another good story on topic in the Boston Globe.)

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.