Fire protection is the second largest general fund spending category for U.S. and Texas cities and towns. According to the Texas Municipal League, one-in-five city general fund dollars go to municipal fire and emergency life support services. It is one of the most visible services provided by local governments. Fire departments roles have changed over the years and the associated costs have increased, meaning every community has or will be wrestling with how to maintain the level of services their communities expect.
Fire Services Statistics
Firefighting has been considered a core municipal service since about the time of the U.S. Civil War. That conflict decimated many volunteer brigades. The growing, urbanizing U.S. population also began demanding better organized fire protection. Most large cities and towns began a long process of bringing their volunteer companies under city control. Today, volunteer firefighters outnumber career fire fighters by more than two-to-one. Volunteer companies mostly serve smaller towns and rural areas. Most Americans are protected by all-career fire departments.
According to the most recent survey by the National Fire Protection Association, there are almost 30,000 fire departments in the U.S. About half of these protect communities with fewer than 2,500 residents. Eight percent of these departments are all-career staffed and they cover most of the U.S. population. Most departments, about 61 percent, also provide either basic or advanced life support services (EMS). For several decades, the number of firefighters per 1,000 population nationally has been relatively constant at about 8.7. There are almost 1.7 career firefighters per 1,000 U.S. residents.
Fire Capital and Salaries
Fire protection is a capital-intensive line of business. There are 58,000 fire stations in the U.S. Local fire departments operate almost 160,000 vehicles including 70,000 pumper trucks and 7,000 aerial (ladder) trucks. At current rates, total replacement of just these signature fire trucks would cost over $50 billion nationally. Each fire fighter’s turn-out gear including breathing apparatus is over seven thousand dollars. Equipment maintenance and replacement is not only a key safety issue for local communities, it is an area that deserves attention from budget efficiency standpoint.
Turning again to Texas Municipal League data, median firefighter salary in Texas is about $30,000. Just as important are health expenses and retirement. Like police officers, firefighters often require specialized mental and physical health support due to the nature of their work. Ongoing training is also essential.
Spending Challenges and Changing Roles
Nationally, total government spending on local fire departments was $43 billion in 2013. This is up 170 percent since 1983. When adjusted for inflation, fire protection spending has more than doubled since 1983.
Several factors seem to be driving fire department budget increases above and beyond population and inflation growth. These include the need to increase staffing to deal with shorter work weeks. Application of Family Medical Leave Act coverage to city fire departments meant more positions to accommodate new leave requirements.
A second driver is the growing role of EMS / ambulance calls. Most dispatches of fire department personnel are for medical calls. In 1980 there were 10.8 million emergency calls – 3 million were fires. The most recent year’s data for 2013 revealed total calls almost tripled to 31.6 million. The number of fire calls fell by 60 percent to 1.2 million. Like all municipal services, fire departments also represent a growing health care and retirement expense burden.
Though fire departments are one of the most visible, well-liked and heroic of city services, they represent a growing strain on municipal finances. Just like our 19th Century predecessors, current citizens demand rapid, effective fire services. To meet this demand, local leaders will need to pay more attention to all facets of department operations. This includes reexamining response protocols, staffing, and fire station placement. There are also opportunities to lower long-term costs through better urban design. Fire services costs are one of the most sensitive to the built environment. Sprawling development requires more staff and assets than tighter development patterns. Better building codes and inspection processes are also a way to lower fire damages and operating costs.
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