Fred S. McChesney is a professor of law and economics at the University of Miami who studies the intersection of economics and public institutions.
If you want to chat with a firefighter or see a fire truck up close, you can go down to the local firehouse at any time of day. The crew will probably be there, lifting weights or washing down the already gleaming red engines. Career firefighters usually live at the firehouse for a day or two, then take as many as three days off. Between eating and sleeping at the station, they mop floors, clean toilets and landscape the yard — with a few hours set aside daily for training and drills. Mid-morning, you’ll find several of them at the local supermarket doing the day’s grocery shopping.
In other words, being a firefighter these days doesn’t involve a lot of fighting fire.
Rapid improvements in fire safety have caused a dramatic drop in the number of blazes,according to the National Fire Protection Association. Buildings are constructed with fire-resistant materials; clothing and curtains are made of flame-retardant fabrics; and municipal laws mandate sprinkler systems and smoke detectors. The striking results: On highways, vehicle fires declined 64 percent from 1980 to 2013. Building fires fell 54 percent during that time. When they break out, sprinkler systems almost always extinguish the flames before firefighters can turn on a hose.