Wednesday, December 15, 2010

From Mustache Cups To Firefighters

As eye-opening as my introduction to mustache cups was on Saturday, my mind keeps drifting back to something else I learned about a couple weeks earlier.

It was just one of three quick little factoids passed along by CBS Sunday Morning between feature stories, but it's turned out to be one of those things that has lingered in my mind long after most of the bigger news stories of the past month have faded away.

Here's the factoid I'm talking about: 75% of US firefighters are volunteers.

Had CBS told me that 75% of emergency room doctors are volunteers or that 75% of IRS tax auditors are volunteers I could hardly have been more surprised.

I had long thought that if my house burst into flames anywhere in the country, a trained professional was likely to be there within minutes to restore order. Now I instead have images of some overweight, underpaid grocery store manager maybe eventually stopping by to sift the ashes for my bones if he happens to hear the bell in the night.

I know (or at least hope) that that's almost certainly a gross mischaracterization of the nature and quality of volunteer firefighters and the service they provide. Still, it's hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that I live in a country that's willing to pay a baseball player like Alex Rodriguez more than $27 million a year to hit and catch a ball while relying on volunteers to provide an essential, life-saving service.

CBS said that these volunteers annually provide a service worth some $37 billion. That's about one-third the amount of money Americans donate to churches and other religious institutions every year. I guess they think protecting themselves from fire in the hypothetical next world is much more important than protecting themselves and others from fire in this real world....

Incidentally, a local news station told me last night that December is the deadliest month for fires. Some awful ones have claimed a number of lives here in central Ohio in recent days. So far this year, 138 Ohioans have died in fires. Only 16% of those happened in homes with working smoke detectors.

Last year, 139 Ohioans had died in fires by December 14. Isn't that amazing? Sure, it's sad, too, but I expect the world to be a sad place. What I'm always caught off-guard by are unsuspected patterns to the sadness. Apparently there's something about the way we 11 million or so Ohioans have arranged our lives that results in a certain number of us dying in fires every year. Although it's impossible to say exactly who will die or when, the final number of victims is unlikely to vary much from 138. I think they said that about 175 Ohioans died in fires two years ago, so it seems a pretty safe bet to say that between 100 and 200 will die next year.

What might we do as a society to boost the odds of that number being closer to 100 than to 200 in 2011? Or 2012? Or 2013?

I'm not sure, but... I'd sure feel better about things if I lived in a society that cared more about memorizing the win-loss statistics of its emergency workers than those of Yankee pitchers.

And I'd feel a whole lot better about things if my fellow "We Need To Cut Taxes!" citizens expected televangelists like central Ohio's own Rod Parsley to hitchhike to his engagements and conferences rather than donating some $500,000 a year to provide him with a private jet (as a recent newspaper story revealed that they do)....


  1. How much would it cut the federal deficit in one year if churches had to pay taxes on donations as income, same as corporations, deducting business expenses and building depreciation but barring any "miraculous" accounting? Has the FFRF published any research on the cost of that exemption? Or how much would it help states if private jets were not exempt from sales tax when purchased for religious fundraising?

  2. At the same time, volunteer fire departments are an American tradition and I think we're going to be seeing more of them if present economic and educational trends continue to relegate large parts of the US to "developing nation" status.

  3. That seems really surprising to me that they'd have so many volunteers. Don't they HAVE to be trained professionals?
    I don't think they allow volunteers here, not in the actual fire fighting department anyhow! Might just look into it..

    From what I've always known where, it's VERY hard to get into the fire department because you have to meet certain fitness criteria...

  4. Does anybody track how many Volunteer Fire Departments serve rural areas?
    I think there's two city-paid fire departments in my county and the rest are all volunteer. The township (usually they're organized by township) pays to maintain a building and equipment but the buildings aren't staffed and there's a big whistle that sounds when there's an emergency. The volunteers are in it for the same reason men have always volunteered--the chance to drink together and get away from their wives.
    The community service ethic drives it, of course, and the fact that if they didn't do it, nobody else would. One of our townships had to go to pagers back in the 90s when one of the volunteers had cancer that metastasized to his brain. He was still a big strong man but had very little reason power left. He knew what the siren meant, tho, and when he heard it, his wife and adult-daughter were not strong enough to keep him from trying to respond.
    The siren stayed silent until he died.
    I was tempted to say most VFDs use texting now, but these are not communities with strong cell phone coverage.
    I'll stop now.