Two headlines from this past week got me thinking about just how far the anti-firefighter anti-public employee message has driven public opinion. One headline was about a California civil grand jury that concluded it was wasteful to send engine companies with 4 firefighters on EMS runs. The concern cited in the article was that fire engines cost $500,000, nearly five times the cost of an ambulance. The other was from the state of Maine, where City Councilman Michael Farrell from Auburn followed a city engine company with a video camera to document that the firefighters were wasting taxpayer money driving around their district.
The problem is not that the average person has an unfounded concern over taxpayer funds being misused. I am a taxpayer and I am concerned about that. The problem is that a judicially empanelled investigative body in California and an elected official in Maine – folks who should be responsible enough to fully investigate matters before they make public pronouncements – reached their conclusions seemingly without understanding the basic economics underlying what they were talking about. It leaves me to wonder whether both headlines were the product of people who had a certain agenda and were content to twist the facts to fit their ideology.
Let’s look at what both the California grand jury and the Maine councilman ignored in their effort to reach their conclusions that it is too costly to put engine companies on the road.
There is a basic cost for a community to have a fire department, and (since both cases involve engine companies), lets specifically focus on engine companies. Neither the grand jury nor Councilman Farrell argued that engine companies are unnecessary, nor suggested that their community had too many engine companies. Rather their focus was on what they claim was the unwarranted use of an engine going on EMS responses in California and driving around the district in Maine.
So what are the real economics? Let’s first look at the cost of an engine company. Fire apparatus generally do not wear out from being driven too many miles, but rather they reach a level of obsolescence before they wear out. It is not uncommon for apparatus to have surprisingly low mileage despite advanced age. As a result, mileage is not a fair way to amortize the cost of a fire truck. Most fire apparatus have a life expectance of between 10 and 15 years. Admittedly many departments get more out of an apparatus, but for planning purposes, you cannot count on getting 20 to 25 years out of a piece of fire equipment – particularly today with on-board computers, componentized parts, etc.
Most experts agree that ten years is a reasonable expectation for the service life of a front line engine, which should leave some serviceable years as a reserve piece to follow. If we assume the cost of a new engine is $500,000 (that figure was mentioned in the California article so we will use it), amortizing that cost over ten years translates to $50,000 per year, $961.53 per week, $137.36 per day, $5.72 per hour.
Routine maintenance to apparatus (annual service test, brakes, tires, oil changes, filters, tune up) range $2,500 per year up to $10,000. When you factor in the need for a major repair every other year (pump overhaul, springs, transmission, fuel injectors, etc.) a sound annual maintenance allotment for an engine is $25,000. Following the same rational, that breaks down to $2.86 per hour.
Let us further assume that the fire apparatus is properly staffed with four personnel, an officer and three firefighters (a huge assumption these days but again that is what the grand jury cited), and the personnel are being compensated reasonably. Let’s assume the officer makes $60,000 per year and the firefighters each make $50,000. Keeping in mind that total cost of an employee for health care benefits, pension, vacation, sick leave, workers compensation costs, uniforms, etc. is usually twice the employee’s salary, we come up with a total cost for each employee as follows:
- Officer salary = $60,000 Total cost (salary and benefits) = $120,000
- Firefighters salary = $60,000 Total cost (salary and benefits) = $100,000
Assuming the officer and firefighters work 56 hours per week (let’s leave FLSA out of this for now):
- Officer’s hourly wage = $20.60 per hour Total Cost = $41.20 per hour
- Firefighters hourly wage = $17.17 per hour Total Cost = $34.34 per hour
So the cost of an engine company broken down this way is roughly as follows
- Apparatus amortization $5.72 per hour
- Apparatus maintenance $2.86 per hour
- Personnel: $144.22 per hour.
- Total Cost: $152.80 per hour
This is a fixed cost. It does not change if the firefighters stop responding to EMS calls or remain in quarters 24/7. The fixed cost would be notably higher in jurisdictions where firefighters are paid more, and where personnel work fewer than 56 hours per week. The calculation also ignores the costs of training the firefighters, maintaining their fire station, and providing the department infrastructure (chiefs, supervisors, administrators, payroll, dispatchers, 911 operators, insurance, etc.). In other words, $152.80 per hour is a low ball figure for the cost of an engine company.
Yet somehow a California grand jury and an elected official in Maine concluded that it is wiser to spend $152.80 an hour to have an engine company sit in quarters than spend an additional $4 a gallon in diesel fuel. In their infinite wisdom it is wiser to save the $4 a gallon, rather than have the engine (a) respond promptly to a life threatening medical emergency in their district, or (b) drive around the district (which incidentally has innumerable benefits to department, including driver’s training, district inspections, building familiarization, etc.). Funny thing – neither of the articles happened to look at the economics this way.
Maybe I am missing something – and if I am, then by all means someone clue me in. The fixed cost of having an engine company will not change by discontinuing the dispatch to EMS calls, or locking down the company from all non-incident related driving. The incremental cost is fuel, the other expenses are fixed…. and while fuel is expensive at $4 a gallon – we are not talking about it costing the taxpayers $5,000 per EMS run, or $500 per EMS run, or even $50 per EMS run….
I also cannot help but wonder if the California grand jury heard testimony from real life paramedics (not the arm-chair type or private sector EMS providers seeking to cash in on a new revenue source) on how many people it takes to properly handle an advanced life support incident, or what we refer to as a code. Where will those extra needed hands come from? From a nearby EMS unit? If so California will need to add a boatload of additional EMS units!
Admittedly, heart attacks and trauma codes are like structure fires, statistically a small part of our total responses, but that merely begs the question – what type of incident should we be prepared for? Should a fire department plan for the best? Should we only dispatch apparatus to types of incidents where statistics tell us they are needed? Should engine companies be staffed to only respond to false alarms if that is what most incidents turn out to be statistically? If that is the case let’s hire senior citizens in powered wheelchairs to be firefighters. Heck – their apparatus will probably be funded through medicare. Can you imagine an emergency room that is only prepared to deal with someone with the flu? How about a passenger jet with no emergency exits and life vests under the seats? Statistics say engines aren’t need on EMS runs? Are you kidding me?
The public’s cynicism toward what we do is disturbing and disheartening, but when elected officials twist reality and perhaps subvert a judicial process to advance a political ideology – that is beyond normal cynicism and spinning the facts. It borders on fraudulent misrepresentation.
And then there is Councilman Farrell in Maine: an elected official pandering to frustrations of the public instead of demonstrating true leadership. Why do I say he is pandering? There are two ways an official can go when he sees possible wrongdoing in a fire department. The first is to discuss it with the fire chief or someone in the fire service to understand the issue, and get it straightened out if appropriate. The other is to make a big splash in the public’s eye. What Councilman Farrell did when he posted the video on YouTube was in essence to say “Hey voters, look at me – I’m a good politician. I know you are upset at high taxes and here is why. Those rotten no-good firefighters are wasting diesel fuel. Aren’t you glad I’m here protecting your interest.” Seriously?
But here is what bothers me the most about the Councilman Farrell’s pandering – and it is totally unfair to expect that he would realize this – so I cannot fault him personally – but firefighters know what I am talking about.
The fire service is a cross section of society, nothing more, nothing less. We have highly motivated firefighters, we have middle of the pack firefighters, and we have some slugs. The slugs don’t want to do anything, and will only do what they have to do – and even then they do it begrudgedly. The middle of pack folks pretty much go with the flow.
More than likely, on June 6, 2011 Councilman Farrell was tailing a crew of highly motivated firefighters who were out in their district at 2:30 pm. When I was a company officer we were out in the district as much as possible, looking at new construction projects, road closures, learning where utility crews were working, tracking events, activities, or anything else that could impact our ability to do our job.
In his quest to alert the public to this outrageous waste of taxpayer funds, who did Councilman Farrell spank without realizing it? I’ll bet it was high performers. The slugs were more than likely back in quarters. And guess who probably thinks it is hilarious? The slugs in the fire department who don’t want to go out and do a thing. And who will the middle of the pack folks follow? Councilman Farrell inadvertently demotivated high performing employees and rewarded and reaffirmed the low performers. And we wonder why things are so screwed up for public employees.
It reminds me of an article written by Steven Kerr back in 1975: “On the Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B”…. definitely a good read for the chiefs out there.
So, what is next. Will a new California grand jury consider the cost of sending police cars on fire and EMS calls to be excessive since they do very little when the get there? Gasoline is not that much cheaper than diesel you know. And will Councilman Farrell unleash his video camera on the cops in Auburn for wasting too much gasoline driving around aimlessly? Maybe the paramedics can be caught wasting oxygen on patients?
How pathetic that I am even stooping to such a level – I apologize. Its just so frustrating. Probably like you I am tired of the anti-firefighter anti-public employee attacks. I am tired of poor “leaders” who cannot accept personal responsibility for poor decisions, and instead point the finger of blame at us, knowing that the public’s attention span can only process an easy explanation. Long explanations like I have provided here don’t stand a chance. At the same time I am tired of the slugs, and frustrated that folks like Councilman Farrell unwittingly provide them with aid and comfort. Sadly, he probably tells his supporters privately that we are all slugs.
No easy answers here, but a lot to think about. For now I’ll have to be content to dream a lawyers dream – about the chance to cross-examine one of these characters on my turf……