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The Chicago News Cooperative today published a comparison of fire department staffing in the nation’s ten largest cities that shows Chicago ranks second only to Houston in the number of firefighters per capita.

The Chicago News Cooperative today published a comparison of fire department staffing in the nation’s ten largest cities that shows Chicago ranks second only to Houston in the number of firefighters per capita.

Chicago has one firefighter for every 637 residents, while the average for the ten largest cities is one for every 792 residents.

The report notes that the number of fires and fire deaths in Chicago and other major cities has declined dramatically in recent decades, while the number of firefighters has remained essentially unchanged.

So how do the big-city staffing levels per capita compare to those in Evanston?

Evanston has 108 firefighters for a population of 74,486 residents, as reported by the 2010 census.

That works out to one firefighter for every 690 residents — more per capita than in all but two of the nation’s ten largest cities.

Public safety spending, which accounts for 39 percent of Evanston’s total general fund budget, is expected to be one of the key items up for discussion as the city tries to cope with expected revenue shortfalls in its upcoming 2012 budget.

Above: Evanston firefighters at a recent house fire on Asbury Avenue.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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24 Comments

  1. Evanston fire department overstaffed?

    It does appear Fire departments are over staffed.   In recent good economic times it was not much of issue.

    The same can be said for all the government employees, when the revenue was coming in, no one cared about the over staffing.

    Interestingly enough when the fire chief recently presented the city service level which was in the top few percent of departments in the county. He noted over 50% was due to other factors such as water supply.

    Thus staffing may not be that large a factor.  Other than a political one, that unions will use to claim we will all die in fires.

    While big city departments have not cut firefighters, several smaller communities come to mind in the region.  Gary Indiana and Waukegan Illinios have both cut firefighters.  Both these communities have serious budget problems.

    Evanston does not have a serious budget crisis yet, although it is clear the City is still over spending and mismanaging our tax dollars  Since the council and Wally are not willing to make major cuts to real services and they keep on adding employees ( 311)

    Also the city of Evanston  fire department is being staffed to cover NU, should NU have it own fire department? Or paid its real fair share such about $500,000 a year for fire service? ( Not give us one fire truck)

    Clearly the city can cut cost, such as having 10% of the fire department contract employees, or decreasing it size. These may be options as we move into the next budget cycle.

  2. I’m surprised at the lack of

    I'm surprised at the lack of comments to this article. This reflects the unspoken truth about firefighters- they do everything but fight fires these days. They are horrendously expensive. But almost impossible to downsize. Evanston had 157 fires last year out of 9000 calls. Almost fewer fires than firefighters (and that will probably occur at some point). I cannot imagine what it would be like to show up for work very day and have practically no opportunity to do what I was trained to do. I'd go crazy. Bottom line: Evanston will never get its arms around its budget nightmare without addressing this. Period.

    1. They indeed do EVERYTHING but fight fires….

      Like emergency medicine, hazardous materials response, high angle rescue, confined space rescue, building collapse, underwater rescue, vehicle entrapment, invalid assists, downed power lines and, oh yeah, terrorism response.

      What a bunch of useless overpaid lazy guys and girls….

      1. Question about list of things firemen do.

        Long list of [theoretical?] things firemen do.  Any breakdown of number of events for your list of things the firemen do ?  Any breakdown of active vrs. idle time by station ?

        Without taking sides in the question about how many firemen are needed in Evanston, I don't recall any stories about handling downed power lines [Com-Ed I would think handle all that and the city would only block off areas—actually I'd more expect to see the police there than firemen.  I don't recall but maybe there are one a year terrorism responses, building collapse, underwater rescue, vehicle entrapment, etc..   The list sound more like a resume of 'possible' or 'rare' things that might be done.

        I stopped into an fire station several years ago and got a very nice tour and a chance to ask a lot of questions.  They had logs but not a breakdown by event but gave their best estimates. 

        I said that it seemed that the fire trucks came and returned quickly many times and I assumed were false alarms. They said "yes."

        Given how many fire trucks and ambulances I see at scenes and the fire trucks not seeming to be used, are many of the valid calls really medical and involving the ambulance crews instead.  They said "yes."   At least at that time the fire trucks went along with the ambulances since the men on the fire trucks also handle the emergency service.  I would think that staffing would allow for enough men to man the ambulance so that both trucks would not have to be sent.  If there is a report of a fire or such event, yes both types of trucks need to be sent, but if the call is clear that it is medical [heart attack or such] it would seem a waste to send a fire truck along.

        They told me but writers to EvanstonNow have disputed, that esp. for a place like NU, there are only so many calls per year? month?, before they are suppose to charge for calls, but NU has not had a record of paying for these 'extra' calls many of which are false alarms and even prank alarms.  They are also suppose to charge for ambulance calls—-some responded that insurance covers those expense but does insurance [or NU] cover calls for passed out students, etc. and what about those in Evanston with no insurance ?

         

        As has been said before, perhaps Evanston, Wilmette, Skokie and Chicago need to come to an arrangement to assure coverage of areas but also be able to reduce staffing and maybe even stations.

        1. Theoretical?

          Theoretical?  These are actual events.  Just because you don't see them happening, and they don't happen on a daily basis does not mean they're theoretical.  The whole point of firemen being trained to handle these occurrences is because everyone knows that fires do not occur on a regular basis.  If you reduce staffing, who do you suggest we train to handle these types of incidents?  What happens when these cross-trained individuals are tied up with their primary job and can't make it to the emergency on time?  And do you then expect those newly cross-trained individuals will not seek some sort of extra compensation as well?  What happens when Skokie, Wilmette, and Winnetka are too busy to help out?  What happens when someone is trapped in a car for 20 minutes waiting for the firemen to arrive from Wilmette , as opposed to 5 minutes when they are coming from Evanston?  Seconds really do count in those situations – its not just a catchy phrase.  What is value of the staffing cuts then.  The whole point of fireman being dedicated to these situations – at the price of inactivity – is that they are able to jump at a moment's notice.  They are trained and paid for the possibilities, not severity and frequency.  Do you suggest we cut lifeguards from the beaches because people don't drown on a regular basis?

          Fireman also handle EMT calls because there are a limited number of ambulances, and a population that calls for ambulances considerably more often than they do for a fire or other incidences.  Fire trucks arrive on the scene first to stabilize the situation because ambulances are active considerably more than fire trucks.  Why do you think paramedics burn out so quickly?  Its because they don't stop.  People call for ambulances 24/7.  No one turned firemen into paramedics because firemen sit around doing nothing.  There are not enough ambulances and paramedics to go around.

          We should just leave the firemen alone.  How much money do you think they make? And how many can we realistically cut – 5 or 6 individuals?  Are we really going to close an entire firehouse?  If you want to argue their contract and pensions need to be reworked, then argue that.  We also need to remember, there are dozens of other incredibly useless, underutilized, undereducated, underperforming, overpaid, and overprivileged individuals working for this city.  There value, and lack there of,  is considerably more tangible – we should start the cuts there.  More importantly, we should shift our focus into how to grow this city and the revenue it generates, rather than always cutting to make ends meet.  

          1. the endless fireman debate

            Eric – by your reasoning, firemen are invaluable, there can't be enough of them, they can't be too highly trained and there is no response time that is short enough. This is the argument of a lobbyist.

            Since fire and police are huge expenses for the city, it's reasonable for any resident to question what is being spent. When people answer "How would you like to have a heart attack and wait XXX minutes for help?" or "How would you like to have your house burn down before firemen could get to it?" it isn't addressing the problem, simply setting up a straw man – an unanswerable question. A plumber following the same course might say, "how would you like your family to die of sewer gas poisoning?" and go on to call for plumbers to annually inspect every house for sewer gas and proper venting.

            The great majority of residents don't have occasion to call the police, don't have house fires, don't have heart attacks. I've been an Evanston resident since 1960 and have never called the fire department for any reason, certainly not for a fire in my home or that of my neighbors. I have never seen an active house fire in Evanston, though of course they do occur. My point is that for all that firemen and policemen can do, and need to be able to do, they are not called upon by most of us yet we must pay for them. Small parts of town get large numbers of calls, large parts of town get few. For those in high crime or frequent fire areas, they are getting a bargain, for everyone else, fire and police are just another insurance cost.

            We all know how insurance companies will predict disaster ("you might die tomorrow!") but we also should know it is a statistical game, a lottery,  that most will lose so that a few will benefit, while the insurance companies take the quite hefty difference to the bank. Firemen and policemen take our fire and crime insurance (property tax) money to the bank.

            In other words, firemen and policemen are just another expense, another public service, but by far the most expensive. Far from response time being a matter of seconds that count, for most of us there is never a need for any response so the time it would take to respond is never an issue. Plenty of people live away from public safety stations, out in the country, where response time would be 30 minutes or more and they continue to live there regardless.

            So it is perfectly reasonable for any citizen to question the expense of police and fire protection, without being hounded for not caring about human life or never thinking of being in a fix or being heartless in general.

          2. Lobbyist?  I don’t care

            Lobbyist?  I don't care enough about most people to lobby for them.  I just like to argue using the same shallow reasoning as those yelling cut cut cut.  The city has much bigger problems, none of which will be solved by cutting some firemen.  We need to get into a position of growth, rather than retreating, to get back on our feet.  I know these cuts and financial growth are mutually exclusive – but the mindset has to change.

            www.cityofevanston.org/assets/Fire2010%20Annual%20Report.pdf

            But to show you I'm a good sport, I already did my homework.  I suggest you read this report too.  I don't know exactly how to decipher all this data.  But neither does anyone else on this board – they still seem to be focused on cuts however.  All I can see is that the number of calls increased from 2009 to 2010 – and on the surface, that fact doesn't really support any staffing cuts.

            Go find the area defined as "Census Tract 8094".  Tell me if its a "high crime" or "frequent fire" area.  This area received the most calls.  About 1271 last year – just under 3.5 calls A DAY.  That's about a 62% increase over the second highest area (786 calls).  Do you know why?  My guess is because of the retirement homes, not the rampant crime and blazing fires.  How do you suggest we handle this abuse of the system?

            And in regards to the comment that country folk seem just fine living 30 minutes away from fire departments, I would also point out that they seemingly do just fine without – and not just living 30 minutes away from, but completely without – social services, libraries, and a 311 call center.  Based on your argument, how much fat do you suggest we trim from those areas?

          3. Endless…?

            Clif, you and I have spoken face-to-face about fire department issues.  I remember you speaking about the differences in response times for "city folk" vs. "country folk."  Please recall that one of the primary differences is population density and the increased probability of needing capacity to handle multiple, simultaneous emergencies.

            Remember, if a house in the country burns down, the risk of destroying the neighbor's house is significantly less than in a dense urban city like Evanston.

            Apples and oranges.

            Compare Evanston's call volume with neighboring communities here.

            Jason

          4. Firemen and Insurance

            It is always easy to say "…stay with the status quo…" as you and others seem to say.

            When you buy car, medical or life insurance you judge the cost of the policy and cost of "if something happens" and make a judgment.  If single and no dependents you probably don't buy $5 million in life insurance;  you don't buy Bentley level car insurance for a 20 year old wreck.  For health and home, it is difficult but still you make a judgment based on all the information you can get.

            How many firemen or policemen do we need ?  Should we double or triple them ?  Or should we look realistically [with examination of other cities and expert analysis] and make a decision.  Just saying we have X firemen and won't evaluate that need and instead call names for anyone who questions what the need is and stick your head back in the sand.  Perhaps we need the same number of firemen, same number of stations, lack of cooperation with other cities, etc. but to fail to examine the need is not the answer.

          5. Just remember that the other

            just remember that the other towns like chicago, wilmette, skokie what ever that they have people to protect also….. So those towns should cover your town for free. Remember those towns people pays taxes and I don't think they want their resourecs in your town for free. Who is going to pay?????

          6. Oh don’t worry – I don’t

            Oh don't worry – I don't insult and stick my head back in the sand…Anonymous.  I hope you do not do the same.

            You are right, we should examine what the city needs in regards to staffing levels – "we" includes everyone yelling cut cut cut based on the observation that firemen don't seem very busy.  In fact, I have already looked at information that is readily available.  Have you read any of it?  If you like, I will point you to it so you can make your own informed decision.  Did you know that from 2009 to 2010 the total number of calls to the fire department increased by 5% overall – about 400.  The number of strictly fire related calls rose about 10%, while the number of EMS calls actually decreased by 5 – not 5% – but 5.  Staffing levels were not changed. Should they have been?  Also, are you aware that a portion of your home owners insurance rates are based on response time?  Individually, that might not seem like a lot, but when you add up all the houses in Evanston, I bet it amounts to a great deal of savings.  If we decrease staff will response times increase, and result in an increase in your insurance rates?  Why are we only comparing ourselves to other cities based on number of firemen per capita?  What about based on property value, square miles, population density, number of roadways etc;  Everyone stating that NU is getting too much bang for its buck clearly isn't aware that the university donated a $550,000 fire truck to the city last year.  Everyone suggesting we should partner up with neighboring communities must not be aware of the fact that we already do partner up with neighboring communities.  Its called Mutual Aid.  If we need to count on other communities to help us with our emergency calls now, how much will we have to rely on them if we start to make cuts?  How much will we be able to reciprocate?  Is the pricey new 311 center going to help alleviate false alarms?  When those calls are eliminated, can we then begin to make cuts?  Will community education go a long way to helping alleviate false alarms?

            By all means – everyone is entitled to ask, explore, and question.  Unfortunately, no one is doing that  – everyone seems to be yelling cut cut cut.

          7. Close one of the two Central Street fire stations

            That's right Eric. Everyone is yelling cut. In case you just parachuted into life, we are in the fourth year of a severe ongoing Recession.

            During this hard Recession, not ONE Evanston firefighter has been laid off. Evanston firefighters still get their annual pay raises and overtime pay. If the city even wants to layoff a firefighter they have to get permission from a third-party arbitrator thanks to a deal worked out between the City Council and the Evanston Fire Union, which filed a lawsuit against the city last year when the city tried to layoff three firefighters.

            All you have to do is read the news about the Chicago-area real estate market  – the revenue engine that keeps cities and towns humming – to understand it is underwater with a tremendous amount of foreclosures and short sales. The state is broke and will cut back on aid to towns such as Evanston.

            So excuse us Evanston taxpayers if we want the Evanston Fire Union to once and for all make some sacrifices. To add insult to injury, a recently retired Evanston fire chief retired at age 52 and will get an annual six figure pension for the rest of his life. That fire chief just got another six-figure job as a fire chief of Winnetka, and in 10 years will get another pension.

            Taxpayers are tired of hearing about the jackpot pensions and favorable treatment government unions get. And we're tired and angry to see year after year our taxes rise as our property values and job security decline.

            Believe me, if the City Council doesn't get it's head out of the sand and take some bold adult-like action to address these significant economic issues, they will be soundly voted out of office, regardless of how much union support they get.

            Raising city and gas taxes, utility rates and banning bags, the Tilted Kilt and developments that don't meet Evanston's rigorous and costly unique green ordinance certainly isn't the move in the right direction. 

            Stand up, act and invest in fiscal conservative candidates who are friends to the taxpayers!

          8. Regarding insuarance rate

            Regarding insuarance rate improvement… This is an old thread but I thought I would respond with a quick anecdote (a reply from my insurance agent a short time ago) on the matter of the mythic "insurance premium windfall" due to fire response improvement of class 3 to class 2. I inquired about a possible reduction, and sent her a link to the press release announcing the improvement. I got an interesting reply: apparantly it makes no difference (she checked). She said it would have made a difference ONLY if going from the worst classification (class 5) to something higher. This is from a major insurance underwriter in the area. I assume they are representative. My reaction was two-fold: what ELSE is firefighter union talking point. And who pushed for (and got) this rating improvement, and at what expense. Was city council duped by an urban myth.

          9. City commissioned staffing report

            In 2005 the Evanston fire union commissioned a report on fire staffing that suggested the city should increase staffing by two firefighters per shift (6 total). The city of course did not like this suggestion so it commissioned its own study. The city commissioned study not only agreed but went as far as saying each fire suppression vehicle (engines and trucks) should respond with 4 personnel. At that time these vehicles responded with only 3 firefighters, which is still the case. The city never increased the staffing to the suggested level, but the fire department has made due. Considering the number of calls the department runs annually has consistently increased I think its is foolish to state we do not need the firefighters we currently have. If you want to argue that we simply can not afford them that is different than saying this service is not needed. In my opinion there are a number of other services that should be cut before the fire or police departments, which by any national standard, and multiple Evanston specific reports are understaffed.

            Also, Bill does the number of firefighters you based your math on include only firefighters who are on the street manning response vehicles, or does it include chiefs, inspectors, etc? Secondly, how do your figures take into account the University population, and the daytime population swell of people who work in the city (NU, the Rotary building, downtown businesses, etc.)? 

            Here is a link to the city commissioned report: http://www.evanstonfirefacts.com/EvanstonILEvaluationFinalReport6506.pdf

             

          10. Fire staffing

            The numbers for Evanston and — as best I can tell, the numbers for the major cities listed in the Chicago News Cooperative report — take into account all firefighters including supervisors, but not including civilian employees of the departments.

            The major cities listed also have daytime population increases from office workers, university students and so forth, so it seems to me that using resident population numbers for all the communities is a fair comparison.

            A comparison of staffing levels cannot tell you what is "right" or "desirable" or "ideal" or "the bare minimum necessary."

            It can only tell you what other communities are actually getting by with.

            The fact that Evanston's fire insurance safety rating has improved from a class 3 to a class 2 while staffing per vehicle has remained at three would seem to suggest that the staffing increase was not absolutely necessary. Only 11 of 2,500 communities in Illinois now have a higher fire insurance safety rating than Evanston.

            Increasing the staffing for the city's five engines and two trucks from three to four would require roughly a 25 percent increase in the department's payroll, and a corresponding increase in pension obligations.

            — Bill

          11. Staffing and “making-do”

            Bill, again, you choose to show statistics that only support your desired point of view.  The 2005-2006 report on Evanston's fire response spoke little on the topic of staffing, other than to recommend the addition of 2 firefighter/paramedics to permanently staff a 3rd ambulance, and to maintain the current distribution of stations and equipment (5 engines and 2 ladder trucks.)

            Last year, a National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) report scientifically proved the differences in efficiencies between fire crews staffed by 3 vs. crews staffed by 4 firefighters.  Essentially, this study tells you what is "right", "desirable", and "ideal". 

            "Performed by a broad coalition in the scientific, firefighting and public-safety communities, the study found that four-person firefighting crews were able to complete 22 essential firefighting and rescue tasks in a typical residential structure 30 percent faster than two-person crews and 25 percent faster than three-person crews"

            From the same report: "Five-person crews were faster than four-person crews in several key tasks. The benefits of five-person crews have also been documented by other researchers for fires in medium- and high-hazard structures, such as high-rise buildings, commercial properties, factories and warehouses."  Sounds a lot like Evanston, don'tcha think?

            Faster extinguishment and rescue operations saves lives and property.  End of story. 

            If you want a true view of how Evanston compares to other fire departments by work load, here is a chart of the 2010 stats for MABAS Division 3 (our surrounding communities we work with directly and rely on for mutual aid in times of severe emergencies.)

            Fact are out there–please report them accurately.

            Jason Hays

             

          12. Fire staffing

            Hi Jason,

            The study you cite suggests what might be "ideal" for a certain type of fire.

            It says nothing about what is right for a community, because it does not do a cost-benefit analysis. Nor does it address what we can afford.

            Furthermore, if five person crews are truly so much better, we presumably would be better off to reduce the number of engines in service in Evanston from five to three and staff them all with five person crews.

            That would let us close two fire stations and sell off two engines, presumably saving a significant amount of money, while still providing four-minute response times to the vast majority of the city.

            Would you favor that?

            Your point of view seems to be that, in a time of budget constraints, all other city services should be completely eliminated before fire and police could be touched at all. And that in fact we should increase spending on fire protection by 25 percent or more.

            I hope we don't have to cut fire or police. And I believe that in any cutback scenario other departments should take deeper cuts than public safety. But I don't believe public safety can be completely exempt from reductions under all circumstances.

            To make intelligent decisions we need to know how other communities are handling their resources. I'm trying to accurately report information about that. Too bad you're unwilling to face those facts.

            — Bill

          13. Reductions have been made…

            Within the last 2-3 years we have eliminated 1 fire prevention bureau position, eliminated a deputy chief position, made numerous budget, salary, and benefit concessions.

            We have made these sacrifices in order to maintain the level of service this city requires, given the volume and breadth of emergencies generated by our citizens.

            It is not just about staffing levels–placement of firehouses and equipment is based on providing adequate response times for emergencies.

            But you know all this…

          14. Thank you for the clarification

            Bill, Thank you for answering my questions. I am not proposing the city increase staffing, this is obviously not an affordable option, and as you point out the ISO rating has improved through other strategies being implemented. I was simply pointing out to those who believe that Evanston is overstaffed, based on only their assumptions, that the evidence collected by multiple reports commissioned by both the Firefighters, and the city would suggest otherwise.

      2. Firemen

        Boy, I sure hope your house doesn't catch fire anytime soon — you'd be damned glad to call on these "useless overpaid lazy guys and girls…."!!! BTW, in Arizona firemen also come to get rattlesnakes out of one's yard, a not-unworthwhile endeavor!!!

        1. I think the poster was being

          I think the poster was being sarcastic when calling them useless and lazy.

  3. Use of contract firefighters is a better answer

    Wally and company are in the process of hiring more fire fighters.  Why?  Wally appears to want to continue to go after small cuts and not  take on the real cuts that are going to produce savings.

    What ever the staffing level of the fire department – it would make good sense to have a mix of contract fire fighters to full time employees to lower costs.

    I would suggest 10 to 20 percent contractors. Of course the status quo, will try to prevent this.  One council member went so far as to suggest she saw no need to have a volunteer department after I suggested this at council.

    She game was she wanted to minimize my statement by claiming i wanted to have citizen volunteer rather than hire fire fighters from other communities to fill the positions or young fire fighters looking to start out.

    Recent statistics the city produced, stated basically 10% of the fire department lived in Evanston the smallest of any group. Is that fire fighters don't want to live here, or can't afford it. I think not.  The nature of the schedules allows them to live far from where the work.  Thus I think we will find plenty of fire fighters willing to fill the contract positions.

    I am not asking to close a fire station or lay off current employees. But to use contractors to replace and vacant positions until the mix reaches the desired level. It would produce at minimum a 30% savings if not more per each position.

  4. Is that a standard rubric?

    Is the number of firefighters per capita a standard rubric to measure staff levels?  Seems to me that there are many, many considerations beyond population that factor into the workload of life safety services.  

    While I have no expertise in this area, it seems to me that this article is more about offering an attention-grabbing headline and not about offering relevant information to this debate.

    Neither the linked article nor this blog are asking substantive questions: if we want to compare our level of service, we need to know what criteria are actually used by the cities in this study to determine staff levels.

    1. Fire Truck/Ambulance Safety—Public Endangers

      I constantly see cars fail to yield to fire trucks and ambulance and even cross in front of them by less than half a block.   The cars have to hear the sirens but fail to yield.  I'm sure there are accidents but at a minimum slow the trucks down.   I've even seen cars honk at drivers ahead of them who stopped for the  trucks.

      The fire department drivers have more immediate concerns while driving but i wish they [or police cars following them] could photograph/stop respectively these drivers who endanger the department drivers and trucks and thus possibly their getting someone to the hospital or getting to a fire.

      We need to get these drivers off the roads !

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