Why pitting fire trucks vs. ambulances is off mark

The most crucial part is to ensure the rigs you have or are requesting are matched to the threats facing the community.

To be clear, I’m a huge fan of National Public Radio. Their programming enlightens and entertains me; I trust their news reporting. They are very good at what they do.

Yet even the best can badly miss the mark. And NPR badly missed the mark on their story about the Chicago Fire Department’s policy to dispatch apparatus to EMS calls.

At one point, the story talks about how busy the ambulances are compared with the apparatus, and how that is one reason for sending apparatus on EMS calls. It reads: “That sounds logical until you ask why Chicago’s fire department still has twice as many fire trucks as ambulances, especially when the department gets 20 times more medical calls than fire calls.”

But that’s not the real choice facing fire departments. The need for fire apparatus is completely separate from the need for ambulances. And call volume is only one factor in making those fleet decisions.

Well-led fire departments make their apparatus fleet decisions based on the size and threat levels of their jurisdictions. A city like Chicago will need more aerials than will a mostly rural town 70 miles outside the city.

And that’s true even if those rigs only see elevated rescue or elevated master stream action 10 to 20 times per year. The public expects and pays to have their emergencies met with the right people and the right equipment when they dial 911.

BUDGET BATTLES AND PUBLIC OPINION

The right amount of ambulances is a much different and arguably more nuanced debate.

Training the public to only call 911 for only genuine emergencies, the role of community paramedicine, the ability to bill for EMS runs and ways to treat on scene without transport – along with call volume – all factor into how many EMS rigs need to be on the street.

The number of ambulances on the street does not change a fire department’s capability of protecting those in its jurisdiction any more than the number of fire apparatus in a fleet changes EMS’s ability to deliver service. Forgoing a rescue truck for more ambulances will leave a department unable to respond to car crashes in the manner needed to save lives.

The only times these two are lumped together is when budgets are being dismantled or there’s public outcry based on bad information.

And it’s times like these that fire chiefs and other fire service leaders need to be able to clearly draw that distinction. Noted fire service researcher Matt Hinds-Aldrich said as much in a recent LinkedIn post.

“When one of your community members or elected officials asks you this question, are you prepared with sufficient easily digestible data to tell your story effectively?” Hinds-Aldrich wrote. “As we saw here, catchy turns of phrases are often summarily dismissed without substantive data. Have you done a community risk analysis as part of a comprehensive CRR program to assess alternative deployment strategies and other means to address your expanding or changing call volume?”

BE AN EXPLAINER

The most crucial part of this mix is to ensure the rigs you have or are requesting are matched to the threats facing the community.

I can clearly recall Chief Shane Ray telling me years ago about his frustration with departments that had buildings no taller than 30 feet yet spending grant money on 134-foot aerial rig. His argument was to buy only the rigs you need and look for ways to share resources with neighboring communities.

The second part, as Hinds-Aldrich says, is being able to tell that story.

The NPR news story highlights what we all know: understanding the fire and emergency services takes a lifetime of learning; it never ends. We can’t expect elected officials, the voting public or even journalists from a well-respected outlet to fully get in a short time what we’ve spent our careers thinking about.

This has to be explained clearly and not only in reaction to an off-the-mark news story, but also proactively, before questions arise.

About the author

Rick Markley is editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission, a humanitarian aid organization that delivers unused fire and EMS equipment to firefighters in developing countries. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s of fine arts. He has logged more than 15 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at [email protected].