At one point during a shift a few months ago, I had somebody’s vomit on my pants and my shirt was torn from crawling through a bathroom window to help an older woman who’d broken her hip. I couldn’t make it back to the firehouse to clean up because every engine in the city was running as hard as my crew was, and the calls wouldn’t let up. Eventually a skinny guy in a greasy mechanic’s jumpsuit yelled at us for not getting to his car fire quickly enough. We could have explained about fiscal-year cycles and Oakland’s new “flexible deployment” model. But then he broke down crying and said, “My shit’s on fire,” and told me he wouldn’t be able to get to work anymore. I told him I was sorry we hadn’t gotten there sooner.
In 2011 there were just under 1.4 million reported fires in the U.S., accounting for 3,005 civilian deaths and almost $12 billion in property damage.
For 15 years, I’ve worked as a firefighter for the City of Oakland. You’ve heard of Oakland. We’re the city that had a freeway collapse in an earthquake, 3,500 homes destroyed by a grass fire, and the most aggressive Occupy movement in the country. We also had 131 homicides last year, making us the third-most-dangerous city in the United States. And, my fire department ran 52,321 calls for medical emergencies, fires, car wrecks, sports riots, and all manner of other mayhem.
In the midst of all that, as in cities across the country, our budget tanked. Laying off 80 cops was the start of our austerity. When it came to the fire department, the city got creative. Our firehouses are numbered from 1 to 29, but that’s a trick. There’s no Station 2. There’s no 9, no 11, no 14. So really, 29 means 25. And then last year, we closed two more, so 29 meant 23. But we didn’t actually close them. We “flexibly deployed” them, which means that no firehouse in the city is closed for good. Instead all the firehouses take turns shutting down for three-day stretches. It’s kind of a brilliant marketing move—the closures are so sporadic that most people don’t even know they’re going on. No neighborhood groups mobilize; no city-council member pounds the podium; and the risk is shared by every block, every school, every grandmother who falls asleep with her cigarette burning.
Atlanta has about the same population as Oakland, but they’ve got about 1,000 firefighters to our 400. Baltimore—not exactly an economic nirvana, as I understand it—has about 50 percent more residents and almost three times as many ladder trucks. Oakland has the fourth-busiest port in the U.S., and we shut down our only fireboat. (Seattle has two.) If one of those big cargo tankers lights off, our plan is to ... well, I don’t know, actually.
Some small-government folks point out that fires have decreased over the last few decades, but we haven’t exactly solved the problem. In 2011 there were just under 1.4 million reported fires in the U.S., accounting for 3,005 civilian deaths, over 17,000 injuries, and almost $12 billion in property damage. And fighting fires is only about 10 percent of what we do.
In the drill tower, our instructors told us that in one minute a fire will double in size and a man in cardiac arrest will have his chances of survival fall by 10 percent. Those stats are probably squishy, but our goal is to reach any address in the city within four minutes. When a firehouse closes, there’s a cascade effect. One fire engine covers for another, and then a third one covers for that one until you’ve got rigs pinballing around town trying to get to a burning building that’s next door to a shuttered firehouse.
We didn’t get into this line of work because we like washing the truck. But there’s such a thing as too busy. If you’ve ever had to call 911, I’ll tell you what you already know: Time never moves more slowly than in the interval between when you dial and when you hear the siren.
I’ve seen fires that were a minute past out-of-control. I’ve seen people who were seconds away from making it out alive. We’ve made good saves over the years, but inside the truck, there’s nothing worse than pulling up to a scene and knowing we’re one minute too late.