Only 5 percent of what fire departments do involves a fire

A new St. Paul report shows most of the department's calls involve medical emergencies.
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When we think about what firefighters do, one thing jumps to mind. But these days fighting fires is actually only a small part of their work.

An analysis of the St. Paul Fire Department that was turned in to the city council Wednesday said what they really are is a medical response department that occasionally fights fires.

95 percent of the calls they get are about something other than a fire, while only 0.5 percent involve a structure fire, said the report by an outside consultant called Tri-Data.

And it's not like St. Paul is unusual. National numbers show the same shift is happening in fire departments around the country. While the system in place now still works pretty well, experts say plans for the future should emphasize the medical part of the job.

The St. Paul report

Tri-Data's study was actually pretty complimentary of St. Paul's fire department. They gave high marks to the personnel, the equipment, the fire stations, and response times. (Slides from their city council presentation are here.)

To keep the department working well in the future, though, they'll need to pay more attention to Emergency Medical Services, the consultant said. EMS demand is growing three to four percent per year, the study says, which is a lot faster than the city's population is growing. Looking ahead, they say medical services are likely to remain the fastest-growing part of the job.

Nationally

Tri-Data said fires lead to five percent of the calls to St. Paul's department and that's right in line with national studies.

FEMA analyzed numbers from 2014 and found just under five percent of calls were to fires.

The National Fire Prevention Agency has been studying these numbers annually since 1980, which is good for identifying trends.

Back in 1980 departments nationwide responded to nearly 3 million fires and 5 million medical aid calls. By 2015 there were fewer than half as many fires and more than four times as many calls for medical help.

Implications

Since money is limited, Tri-Data suggested in Wednesday's report that St. Paul look at shifting resources within the department from fire to medical. Fire Chief Tim Butler tells the Pioneer Press he's not excited about the idea of cutbacks on the fire suppression side of things.

Keeping up with the need for change will require some new ways of thinking, though.

A scholar writing in the journal Governinga couple years ago said the data show cities need to steer their fire departments away from fires and focus more on paramedics and ambulances.

Tri-Data's report says St. Paul's department is still "fire-centric" and notes that tradition and culture can sometimes get in the way of making changes. They even pulled out a catch phrase of consulting by asserting that a "paradigm shift" will need to occur going forward.

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