Saturday, October 7

Why Do We Send Fire Engines to Ambulance Calls?

I was driving a refugee from Kyrgyzstan to a doctor's appointment when he asked me a simple question for which I had no answer. Why do fire engines show up to ambulance calls when there is no fire? At the moment he asked, I had nothing to explain it beyond that any emergency along a road could spark a fire, but I kind of second-guessed my own reasoning as soon as I said it. Since the question stuck with me, I Googled it, and the online answers weren't much better.

One answer I saw a few times for why fire trucks respond to ambulance calls was that the firemen who ride along are all trained in first aid. But a big-ass, $1 million fire engine when there is no fire? I didn't even see anyone else trying to argue a fire might result from any emergency situation, though I can still see it for a bad car crash or any emergency at a gas station or fireworks plant.

One answer I didn't give was strong unions, but I have to believe that's part of the equation. In 2020, there were 36 million calls for fire departments, with a mere 1.4 million fires. With about 1 million career and volunteer firefighters in the US, that means the average firefighter gets called to maybe a couple of fires. Sure, big fires may need multiple departments, and several engines might race to a single fire. Still, if JFRD gets 150,000 calls per year, we can assume about 6,000 fires. With 1300 employees spread over 70 stations, let's assume 20 firefighters respond to the average fire. OSHA says 4 are needed, and websites I've perused say 10 to 20, so let's go with 20x6,000 fires = 12,000 firefighters responding to fires in Jax in the average year. Divided by 1300, and it's about 10 fires. But maybe let's say half those guys are paramedics or chiefs or whatever, then 12,000/650 or closer to 20 fires per year. That's why I mentioned the strong union that probably pushes for a full fire engine response to as many emergencies as possible, since most of us wouldn't presume to get full-time salary for doing our actual jobs 20 times or less per year, while lifting weights and playing cards the rest of the time. Or possibly running some other business from the station.

The reality is that if most people knew how many actual fires the average fireman fought per year, they'd probably be disappointed, which is kind of sad. If the police respond to fewer murders, we congratulate the department, but since firemen aren't cruising around trying to prevent fires, they are judged more on actual calls for service.

Anyhow, since most people would go nuts if they knew how few times firemen put out actual fires, I assume fire trucks respond to ambulance calls because you can fit a bunch of guys on the truck and it counts as a response to a call. I read that fire trucks contain the first aid stuff for those who need medical assistance. And I'm really cool with 20+ first responders showing up to help an old lady who fell in the kitchen, just in case. I guess I'm just with the refugee who asked why the fire engine was involved. When I drove past the firehouse a few blocks from my house, I saw a dozen crew-cab pickup trucks in the lot. Can't the fire department just deputize a personal vehicle and slap one of those strobe lights on top? I mean, no first responders in Jacksonville use actual sirens, anyhow (which is weird and dangerous but true), so why not just the Starsky and Hutch strobe light. They can even slide across the hood to get in if they want. Also, each station could probably afford some 12-passenger Econolines rather than pay for maintenance and depreciation on huge actual fire trucks.

I guess another, dystopian option would be to neurolink a bunch of prisoners (who also lift weights a lot) to use them as firefighters. And then blow up their brains if they try to escape while fighting fires. I guess that's a suggestion for another discussion and almost totally unrelated.

Anyhow, with the total number of calls for service being high in Jacksonville, I'm not suggesting cutting staff or anything. All I'm saying is that the practice of using fire engines as glorified ambulance chariots might be outdated and deserve a re-think. And use your sirens.

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