Firefighting’s changing face: How technology, call ratios have transformed the fire service

No first response discipline is immune to change, but firefighting may be the most susceptible to its effects. A near-interminable list of technological and legislative advancements, along with shifting fire-to-medical call ratios, have significantly altered the job and the way fire departments approach it in the past several decades. This has resulted in a fire services landscape that is, in some ways, wholly different from the departments of the mid-20th century.

For organizations that must justify every budget dollar they are given with information on fires stopped and calls responded, at the core of these changes is the basic fact that fire departments take far fewer fire calls and far more medical calls these days. While fewer lives lost and less property destroyed is certainly desirable, the comparative lack of fire-related calls carries a ripple effect that can result in undesirable outcomes like layoffs, budget cuts, and controversial efficiency measures such as cross-training with law enforcement.

Ultimately, these and other changes have left fire departments and their stakeholders with no choice but to adapt. The services departments offer still provide incalculable value to their communities, but the active fire-stopping efforts that come to mind when one says firefighter, in terms of day-to-day roles and impacts, have been compounded with other functions, largely medical. With structure fires and related events reducing at a sustained pace since 1980, per National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) research, this trend is likely to continue, suggesting the face of firefighting will see even more change before matters normalize.

Historic fire lows stem from advancements in fire code, home technology

In 1980, the same NFPA research indicates there were 1,065,000 structure fires. Things were almost as bad in 1981, when 1,027,500 structure fires were recorded—however, that year also marks the last year the NFPA reported over a million structure fires. Though some years have shown modest increases from their respective predecessors, the overall trend has shown remarkable drops, with many of the highest-percentage reductions occurring between 1983 and 1998.

As mentioned above, the ongoing evolution of fire safety doctrine and technology played a major role in this change. And while more stringent building codes, improved firefighting techniques, and advances in technology comprise a large part of that change, the home smoke alarm, a technology that saw an increase in functionality and drop in price in the 1980s, was the single most prominent change effecting lower fire numbers. A then-record 75 percent of all US homes reported having working alarms in 1985, and the number of structural fires dropped from over 859,000 to a flat 800,000 between that year and 1986. Laws and regulations governing use of the devices saw similar improvement, further preventing small fires from becoming larger, more destructive ones. For one example, NFPA 72—one of several NFPA standards upon which many state fire codes and laws are set—began requiring a smoke alarm in every bedroom in 1993; unsurprisingly, structure fires dropped from 621,500 to 573,500 between that year and 1995.

Moreover, figures on the relatively few structure fires in the years since smoke alarms became standard underscore this hypothesis. Per the US Fire Administration (PDF), “only 6 percent of U.S. homes” were not equipped with smoke alarms in 2001, yet residences with no alarm accounted for 40 percent of all structure fires. While “38 percent of residences [suffering fires] had an operable alarm” in the same period, those fires “accounted for only 8 percent of total property loss.”

Perhaps most encouraging, smoke alarms account for only one of the many fire-beating innovations deployed in the same period between the 1980s and now. These advancements have created a far safer space for US residents in terms of fire safety. The NFPA reported 501,500 structure fires in 2015, and 494,000 the year before that. Equally destructive events like wildfires, while still posing a significant threat to civilians and responders alike, have seen similar drops in the same 30 year period.

Firefighting’s “newfound” medical role reflects makeup of calls

Layoffs and budget cuts, while undoubtedly troubling for career and volunteer fire staff and their departments, are not the only consequences of the dramatic drop in fire numbers, however. If these measures are seen as standard responses to temporarily dwindling business—and an unpleasant fact of life in public- and private-sector jobs alike—the other changes seen in the industry reflect adaptation to a longer-term, likely permanent, alteration.

NFPA research highlights the significance of this change. Active fire calls have taken an increasingly small share of overall fire department calls in recent decades, and particularly the last several years. Of the 33,635,500 fire department calls in 2015, only 1,345,500 (four percent) were for fires; in 1995, they accounted for nearly 12 percent; in 1985, nearly 20 percent.

Calls have ballooned in the same period—almost entirely due to surging medical calls. The 33.6 million figure listed above represents a near 300 percent increase since 1985, and is the best statistical proof of firefighting’s new role: that of a cross-functional, collaborative department that works alongside other services (most often, EMS) and provides more in the form of medical aid on-call than it does on fires.

This idea is further reflected in the wake of fire-EMS mergers, a model that has grown in popularity of late but is not entirely new to certain departments. In Chicago, for instance, ambulances have been under the fire department’s purview since at least the 1920s, but it was not until the mid-1980s that an “ambulance assist” model was introduced [PDF link] in response to skyrocketing medical calls. More recently, an increasing number of agencies have attempted similar mergers with varying degrees of success. Some such marriages have been disbanded after projected efficiencies were not realized or formerly respectable response times suffered.

Of course, some blending of firefighting and medical training has high potential to be beneficial. Firefighters, who are often first on the scene of fires and other emergencies, may be able to save lives by administering basic first aid or CPR before specialized medical professionals arrive. In areas where city fire engines outnumber city ambulances, such as Chicago, where the ratio is as high as 2:1, the combination makes particular sense. The city’s been criticized for its relatively high fire truck numbers, but the criticism would be even harsher if firefighters were unable to render appropriate aid when they arrived first.

When examining the current makeup of overall response assets, however, certain onlookers have questioned the distribution of resources. To paraphrase a recent NPR investigation, the question is not why cities like Chicago send ambulances to exclusive medical scenes when they have an imbalance of vehicles. It is why that imbalance exists in the first place, considering the ratio of medical-to-fire-calls.

The answer is multifaceted and not entirely clear. As the NPR piece notes, the considerable political heft wielded by fire unions and related groups plays a partial role. So too does governmental inertia: restructuring an entire city’s emergency services to better reflect the makeup of calls is a huge amount of effort, relative to gradually converging services and the skills responders bring when they arrive at a scene.

Responding to fire calls is only part of the critical services departments provide, including preventative measures that fall completely beyond the scope of law enforcement or medical teams. Even if certain cities could ostensibly stand to restructure resources to better match the realities of call ratios, erring on the side of too little firefighting only saves dollars, while too much firefighting saves lives.

Where does firefighting go from here?

Whatever the causes, firefighting as a practice and a municipal service is in a clear state of flux. The above-mentioned changes, combined with technological and medical advancement, dwindling volunteer numbers, and numerous other factors, have left the industry with changing roles and an unclear future. While firefighters will always be an integral part of communities, precisely how they provide that service may see drastic change before matters stabilize.

If municipal stakeholders can devise a model that meets public approval and does not markedly reduce quality, sustained convergence of skills and services may be one outcome. Given the changing state of the fire industry, relative stability of the EMS world, and dynamics of the scenes firefighters respond to, there is a good chance fire departments will bear the brunt of the change here. This move will undoubtedly draw the ire of fire personnel, many of whom have already had to adapt to growing EMS certification requirements, but the sheer number of medical calls teams take, assist on, and respond to may prove an irrefutable situation for decision makers.

Technology may also allow towns and cities to reduce human resources at the fire grounds without notably affecting quality, a move that could ultimately result in more layoffs for career firefighters. Firefighting drones, already praised for their ability to bridge gaps in human capability, will continue to follow the normal technology trend of smaller size, more capability, and lower cost, making them more viable for standard fires as well as challenging ones. Fire command, another area seeing ongoing technological renovation, may allow teams to attack certain fires with more precision, and thus less need for human elements.

There is also some chance that cash-strapped municipalities, and particularly those paying career squads, may simply resort to more layoffs and rollbacks, using the ever-shrinking lows in fire calls as justification to field skeleton crews in the firehouse. Just as unfortunately, reversals of poor decisions like these are often written in blood: severe public outcry over a fatal fire that could have been avoided with more staff seems the only guaranteed way to make communities who follow this path rethink their methods.

Even considering this, however, the situation is not all doom-and-gloom for fire departments. Colloquially speaking, fire personnel are often far more popular in the public eye than other branches of first response, drawing admiration and praise when they do well (and earning their managing cities significant ire when vital resources or funding are cut). People will always need protection from fire, which means a network of volunteer and professional firefighting assets will continue to help their neighbors battle fires. Though the shape of that service when the proverbial smoke clears is anyone’s guess, the basics should effectively remain the same as long as there are fires to fight.

Posted on Aug 23, 2018