Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is Mayor Barrett Playing With Fire?

Actually, his reduction in fire stations may have no impact on safety.

By - Oct 10th, 2017 12:31 pm
Numerous fire department vehicles respond to a call. Photo by Dave Reid.

Numerous fire department vehicles respond to a call. Photo by Dave Reid.

Across America, a curious thing has been happening: even as the number of fires has been plummeting, the number of professional fire fighters paid for by taxpayers has been increasing.

“Rapid improvements in fire safety have caused a dramatic drop in the number of blazes, according to the National Fire Protection Association,” as Fred McChesney, a professor of law and economics at the University of Miami School of Law, has written. “Buildings are constructed with fire-resistant materials; clothing and curtains are made of flame-retardant fabrics; and municipal laws mandate sprinkler systems and smoke detectors.”

As a result, he noted, the number of fires nationally dropped from three million in 1980 to 1.2 million in 2013, a decline of 59 percent. “Building fires fell 54 percent during that time. When they break out, sprinkler systems almost always extinguish the flames before firefighters can turn on a hose,” McChesney noted.

Cities across America have seen a decline in fires. Building fires in Milwaukee dropped from 1,914 in 1985 to just 720 in 2013, according to department data retrieved by the city’s Legislative Reference Bureau. That’s a decline of 62 percent.

And those fires that do occur are much smaller in their impact. “As recently as the early 1980s, it wasn’t unusual to have a couple of home fires a year that resulted in 10 or more deaths each, McChesney observes. “Today, that kind of fire-related tragedy is almost unheard of. There wasn’t a single one between 2008 and 2013.”

In Boston, “city records show that major fires are becoming vanishingly rare,” the Boston Globe reported in 2013. “In 1975, there were 417 of them. Last year, there were 40. That’s a decline of more than 90 percent.”

“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 story noted. “The cost of running the department, meanwhile, has increased by almost $43 million over the past decade.”

That’s because employee salaries and benefits, driven by health costs that annually exceed inflation and longer-living retirees collecting pensions, are driving up city budgets.

But most cities haven’t cut the number of firefighters. As McChesney reports, the number of firefighters in the U.S. “grew from 238,000 in 1986 to 355,000 in 2013, a 49% increase. There are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago, but about 50 percent more people are paid to fight them.”

As a result, fire fighters spend most of their time doing things other than handling fires. “Today, fewer than 4 percent of fire department calls are for fires. Meanwhile, requests for medical aid more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2013,” McChesney notes. “In other words, for every structure fire a fire department responds to, it receives 44 medical calls.”

“Firefighters are often able to get to an emergency scene a few minutes earlier than an ambulance—in part because of the number of fire stations, and in part because ambulances are busier, whereas there’s almost always a fire truck free and ready to roll,” the Globe story noted. “The result is that in many medical emergencies in Boston—about a third of them, according to Boston EMS—we get a team of firefighters dealing with the situation for a few minutes, and then handing it off to EMS once the ambulance arrives.”

But given the costs of fire fighters compared to paramedics, that can be an expensive way to handle the problem.

As Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, puts it bluntly: “Fire fighters don’t fight fires.” Tabarrok, who writes a blog called Marginal Revolution explained the situation this way: “I like to call it the ‘March of Dimes’ problem. The March of Dimes was successful in curing polio then looked around and said, ‘Now what do we do?’ Firefighters face the same question.”

Which brings us to Barrett’s plan to close six fire stations. All the information suggests the impact will be minimal. Milwaukee Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing has estimated the closures will add five to 25 seconds to the department’s response times, which would still be lower than the national average. Considering how over-staffed most cities are with fire fighters, it’s no small thing to exceed the national average.

Three of the six stations in Milwaukee will still be operated, but for different purposes than fire fighting, echoing the national trend of fire fighters working on other tasks. There will be a net loss of just one fire engine under Barrett’s plan and there will still be four firefighters assigned to every fire engine. And the cut of 75 fire fighters will be achieved through attrition, without laying off even one fire fighter.

The fire fighters union claims this is the 14th straight year of cuts, but many cuts have been quite modest. Since 2010 the number of fire fighters has dropped from 950 to 810, a 14 percent drop, during a period that the number of fires declined by 24 percent, according to figures compiled by the fire fighters’ Accountability in Management meetings.

The reality is that Barrett has no choice but to slash the city budget because of the massive decline in state aid to Milwaukee, which has dropped in real dollars by 36 percent or $151 million annually over the last 20 years, leading the non-partisan Public Policy Forum to declare the city’s revenue structure is “broken.”

Remarkably, even Ald. Bob Donovan, who has never met a Barrett budget he likes, has called on Gov. Scott Walker to form a committee to study possible solutions to Milwaukee’s fiscal challenges.

The Public Policy Forum report noted that Milwaukee was the only city of 38 it studied that cannot levy a city income or sales tax, and was uniquely dependent on only the property tax and state aid to local governments. And the latter has declined dramatically from 1997, when it represented 11.6 percent of the state’s spending, compared to just 4.8 percent in 2017, as a recent Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis found.

Barrett has been pleading with Walker and the Legislature to give the city permission to levy a city sales tax. Perhaps the fire fighters union, whose clout was shown when they got legislators to eliminate the city residency requirement, might want to throw its weight behind the mayor’s proposal.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

25 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Is Mayor Barrett Playing With Fire?”

  1. Jeff from Milwaukee says:

    This paragraph is key for me – if the rest of the State doesn’t like MKE, at least let us decide on our own if we want to tax ourselves for services we value:
    “The Public Policy Forum report noted that Milwaukee was the only city of 38 it studied that cannot levy a city income or sales tax, and was uniquely dependent on only the property tax and state aid to local governments. And the latter has declined dramatically from 1997, when it represented 11.6 percent of the state’s spending, compared to just 4.8 percent in 2017, as a recent Legislative Fiscal Bureau analysis found.”
    We shouldn’t have to rely on a gift from a casino to pay for streetcar operations, to cite a this-week example.

  2. Typical left, payoff your buddies with pork, ignore the human trafficking, the heroin epidemic, the car jackings, car theft, bad roads and raise taxes to put more money in public employees pockets.
    Milwaukee is top ten worst crime, top ten worst managed cities.

  3. Ryan says:

    WCD – what does your post have to do with the article? Are you saying that too much money is or will be going into firefighters pockets?

  4. Stupid comment. they are cutting firefighters, money going to buddies for trolley, arena and other pork while reducing the fire and police.
    Barrett readily earned the prize as top ten worst crime, top ten worst managed cities. Yokels here defend the terrible management of the governmental bodies in Milwaukee. Schools are National Disgrace”.
    Left’s standard rule is to demand more taxes instead of better management, and this the most regressive of taxes: sales, property.

  5. Ryan says:

    WCD- The supposed reduction in firefighters would have no impact on safety. Even the fire chief has stated that. So are you against efficiency in government? You want to keep on extra fire engines just because? WCD – You can’t talk about waste in government while ignoring your own pet causes that cost taxpayers millions. Don’t be stupid.

  6. Melodious Thunk says:

    “Milwaukee is top ten worst crime, top ten worst managed cities.”

    As a public service can Wisconsin Conservative Digest provide something to back this up?

  7. Jason TRoll says:

    City pensions are not cheap that is why the private sector banished them. A city employee can work 30 years and be retired for twenty. The economics don’t add up.

  8. Ryan, so you re saying that we have had too many firefighters for the last 100 years? That is really bad management.

  9. Ryan says:

    WCD – Read the article again. Milwaukee may need to change with the times . The approprate level of firefighters in the 80s was likely higher than the appropriate level today. So Barrett may actually be “right-sizing” the fire department. Although there is plenty of mismanagement that I will not deny, these proposed supposed cuts to fire department are not a good example of mismanagement, more of “right-sizing” the department…to use a phrase popular with republicans. When it suits their purpose.

  10. Paul Trotter says:

    Meanwhile – Scott Walker sends out a push poll that once again divides and conquers. Notice he asks nothing about roads or more state aid for our big cites.

    Knowing what issues are most important to you will help us to better fight for you against the Big Government Special Interests that want to take Wisconsin – and America – backward.

    Fill out this form to help keep us moving forward

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  11. Jason TRoll says:

    What will come first Tom Barrett drops pension bonanza on new employees and gives them 401K’s to preserve the city’s future or Tom Barrett disarms the Milwaukee Police force so there will never be another dead black man on his watch with the smell of MPD.

  12. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    That has even published round here for a decade, but google it, check FBI stats. O, I forgot worst schools in country according to Arne Duncan.: “National Disgrace’.

    The apologists for this situation live on this site.

    Murphy should be able to remember all this unless his alzheimers checked in.

  13. Paul Trotter says:

    Anonymous WDC – what’s with you dude? Off topic and attacking the author for reporting facts? The story isn’t about schools WDC. Volunteer in MPS if you want to make a difference.

  14. Paul Trotter says:

    TROLL – what’s next -what would Walker do? Yep – you know the answer.

  15. Tim says:

    WCD is Bob Dohnal, so toxic even his kids won’t live in the same state as himself.

    He’s the sworn enemy of liberals and grammar nazis, judging by his hackneyed posts. Don’t worry real Nazis, he’s got your back.

  16. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    yes, my kids live elsewhere as they are in the Special Forces defending this country against nutty Nazi socialist types that run Cuba, Venezuela, and tried tot are over our country under Obama.

  17. David says:

    The real failure of trolls like WCD is that they just like to yell about all the bad things in Milwaukee without any concern for the reason why they are that way. Are Milwaukee’s schools performing poorly? Yes they are. That’s what you get when you have a school funding structure based of property tax. The places with low property values have less money for their schools. The inner city public schools in Milwaukee are being asked to do no less than overcome the effects of poverty on a lesser budget than suburban schools get to overcome….. well nothing. Why are property values low? Decades of discriminatory city, state, and especially federal policies and racist white people who ran away and took their money with them as soon as blacks showed up in their neighborhood. The existence of Brookfield is why Sherman Park is the way Sherman Park is. Yea sure most of those laws haven’t been on the books for a while but it’s way harder to dig yourself out of a hole than it is to coast on wealth you’ve always had like the ‘burbs do.

    Anyway this is all way off topic. This article is about how firefighters cost the city a huge amount of money. Get over your folksy reverence for what they do and you’ll realize a Fire Department of the size Milwaukee has is massive government waste. Really we should cut the Fire Department back substantially more and refocus them on fires and only fires. Then take part of the money you’ve saved by making the cuts to help those who lost their jobs find new work and make ends meet while they develop new skills and use the other part of the money saved to add more fully equipped medical first responders.

  18. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    WE have a very simple goal: Make Milwaukee work again.
    WE had good Mayor in Norquist/Maier that were concerned about schools, hold down crime, fixed the roads, got rid of drug houses, abandon homes, saved our little girls from heroin overdose, ran a clean operation, spent money on security and peoples welfare before subsidizing multi millionaire ball bouncers, teach kids to read, foil human trafficking, build buses fro peoel to get to work, cleaned up the corrupt Milwaukee county govt., Reduced taxes by reducing pork and fought for jobs for kids like Foxconn so they have a future. Luckily Tommy and Scott did these things. The white, liberal, male, racists that run Milwaukee can not do any of this, and Murphy, the Journal are apologists for this.

  19. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Dopey people know nothing about school funding. They get most of their money from the state, not property taxes. They get the most in state for various reasons. We have worked on these programs fro 50 years. Helped devise Chap 220. Devised numerous programs to fix Milwaukee schools with Norquist and others, CHOICE just being one of them. Devised programs, to bust up MPS as it will never work this way.
    Fact is the there are real of the state far poorer than Milwaukee. try the counties up north where they have little of anything but get the job done. They all look at people down here as a bunch of incompetent whiners, unable to run anything cause they are so corrupt. look at the Goodies we have here compared to Forest, Sauk, Adams and the rest up north, and then whine some more. Murphy has taught you well how to whine all day. try solving some problems, teach kids to rad, stop “catch and release”, stop car jacking, prosecute the drug trade and people would line up to help. If we just once saw some solutions to problems on this site you might get some respect.

  20. revtlee says:

    Here’s an idea from the 1970’s when I lived and worked in Louisville, Kentucky. The County and City shared an Income tax. Half went to where you worked (i.e. the City if you worked in the City) and half to where you lived (so if you lived in Louisville but worked out in the County half went to each). This recognized that services provided by the municipality or political division made a person’s workplace safe, etc. It’s time we recognized that those who work in Milwaukee but live elsewhere should bear some of the burden for those services jprovided by the City,. The same argumnent can be made for a City sales tax. As a “bay-ite” who eats and drinks in Milwaukee, I should be paying something for that privilege.

  21. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Complete lack of knowledge on how fiscal matters work in Wis.
    Right now the county and city already share the high state income taxes, cause they get direct rebates from testate for roads, schools, govt, everything. You want to throw more taxes on top of this?
    Has anyone noticed the growth in Waukesha, as the people, jobs bail out of Milwaukee? Why? All the thing we have mentioned in the previous entries here and no one has any plans to fix them
    Arne Duncan comes into town and exposed MPS as the worst in country? Murphy and the trolls here, defend the schools. Barrett hides under table.
    Kooyenga/Darling put together new plan for schools, very modest and the left, Urban Milwaukee birdbrains, the admin, the union and Barrett destroy them.
    Only the conservatives in this state have tried to help Milwaukee. Left has been in charge here for 100 years and look what we have.

  22. Jess says:

    I find it interesting that this article references national numbers as well as those of other cities. Why not look at what is actually happening in Milwaukee to decide what is best for Milwaukee? I also think that the best source for how the cuts will affect operations would be to talk to the people who are doing the job. The fire chief is in support of the mayor, but talk to the firefighters who actually work on busy engines and they can tell you the people they serve on a daily basis will be affected.

  23. Ryan says:

    “Cities across America have seen a decline in fires. Building fires in Milwaukee dropped from 1,914 in 1985 to just 720 in 2013, according to department data retrieved by the city’s Legislative Reference Bureau. That’s a decline of 62 percent.”

    It does provide Milwaukee’s numbers.

  24. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    That is great. We should have put the money into police as that has gone the opposite direction

  25. Ron Legro says:

    Point of info: the city and the mayor do not run the public schools nor control them. And state to public schools under Walker has taken hits worse than those targeting city government. You want a better Milwaukee with higher paying jobs and quality of life? Then invest more in. K-12 and college education. Not less, as Walker has done over his tenure. And if he truly cared he would also invest more in health care and help the city become more fiscally independent.

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