Probably you've noticed that even though structure fires are rare in Salem, huge fire trucks are still frequently seen racing around the city. What the heck are they doing, since they're not fighting fires?
They're doing what government bureaucracies almost always do. If your original reason for being no longer applies, then redefine your mission to avoid becoming irrelevant or having your budget reduced.
So now "fire" departments actually are wasteful ways of responding to medical calls, both emergencies and non-emergencies. Oregon's Phil Keisling wrote about this in his 2015 piece, Why we need to take the 'fire' out of 'fire department.'
It's must reading for those concerned about improving the efficiency of Salem's fire and police departments, which suck up the majority of general fund dollars. Here's how it starts out.
It's arguably the best known, least acknowledged and most inconvenient truth in local government: "Fire departments" -- in the precise meaning of that label -- no longer exist anywhere in America.
Thousands of official entities bear this or a similar moniker. But given what they and their employees actually do, "Emergency Medical, Incident Response and Every-Once-in-a-While-an-Actual-Fire Department" would be far more accurate.
In 1980, according to the National Fire Protection Association, the nation's 30,000 fire departments responded to 10.8 million emergency calls. About 3 million were classified as fires. By 2013, total calls had nearly tripled to 31.6 million, while fire calls had plummeted to 1.24 million, of which just 500,000 of were actual structure fires. For America's 1.14 million career and volunteer firefighters, that works out to an average of just one structure fire every other year.
The parallel with Salem's Police Department is obvious.
With crime rates dropping, most of what police do in Salem doesn't require a cop car or armed uniformed officer. Yet the City Council just authorized six additional police officers, even though solid evidence shows that a mobile crisis response team made up of civilians would provide better services for a high percentage of calls at a much lower cost.
Fellow citizen activist Jim Scheppke shared with me his research about a similar objective in the 2018-2023 strategic plan of the Salem Fire Department.
Download Salem Fire Department Strategic Plan
Now, I'm not sure what non-emergency means here. Regardless, it's clear that this objective in the Fire Department's Strategic Plan, which was supposed to be completed by July 2020, two years ago, has to do with finding alternative ways to handle medical calls by the department.
Keisling talks about this in his piece.
In 2012, the city of Toronto, over the Fire Department’s objections, changed protocols to deploy ambulances (from a separate government unit) instead of EMT-staffed fire trucks for more than 50 types of medical emergencies. The next year, after city staff recommended a budget that would close four fire stations and cut 84 firefighting jobs--while adding 56 paramedics--firefighter-funded TV ads alleged that the cuts would "put lives at risk."
This isn't just a big-city problem. In 2013, a faculty-led research team for Portland State University's Center for Public Service (which I direct) analyzed two years of 911 calls for three small cities collectively contracting with a nearby city's fire/EMS department. Known medical calls comprised 75 percent of these incidents.
Our team identified a number of lower-cost operating alternatives, such as adding many more ambulances or specially-designed Rapid Response Vehicles (RRVs) to produce faster response times. We learned of one jurisdiction that had strategically purchased a three-bedroom house in a high 911-call generating area near a nursing home for an ambulance and its crew.
Given how strongly fire departments defend their bureaucratic turf, you're not going to be surprised to learn that the progress the Salem Fire Department has made on Objective 1-G above is essentially zero.
When Scheppke asked about progress, he got this response from the department.
Objective 1-G has not been completed and no final report documentation or recommendations have been created. Some superficial investigation was done initially, however no reports or final recommendations were produced as a result.
But the Salem Fire Department was very successful at getting $26 million for new fire trucks and other equipment put into the $300 million community improvement bond measure to be voted on this November -- because their current trucks supposedly are worn out from all that driving around to non-fire medical calls.
When Scheppke followed up with a question about whether the Salem Fire Department ever intends to pursue alternative ways of handling medical calls, he was told:
The Department does not foresee this objective moving forward given the current budgetary climate. The objective will be re-evaluated during the next planning cycle in 2024.
"Current budgetary climate" apparently means We're planning to get from the bond measure not only the $26 million for new equipment, but also $14 million for new fire stations, even though we rarely fight fires these days, so we've got no interest in identifying more efficient ways to run the department until we get voters to approve the $40 million that's based on our business-as-usual approach.
OK, but assuming the bond measure passes, city officials should ask some tough questions of the Salem Fire Department before allowing the department to open any additional fire stations or purchase new fire trucks.
Citizens need to know about alternatives to the current wasteful practice of sending fire trucks out on medical calls, and why the department hasn't embraced those alternatives. In other words, the Salem Fire Department should be forced to complete the objective above that was supposed to have been accomplished two years ago.
Better late than never, since probably a large chunk of the $40 million could be spent more wisely than doing the Business-As-Usual thing that the Salem Fire Department prefers, but is a disservice to taxpayers.