Declining revenues have forced many cities to turn to what is usually a last resort when trying to balance troubled budgets: cutting public safety services, such as fire protection. But firefighters say that, while fire departments are expensive, cutting them to save cash may carry a steeper price in loss of lives and damage to property.

The fact that cities are cutting such core services is an indication of the depth of the current recession, says Chris Hoene, director of research for the Washington-based National League of Cities (NLC). “Typically, the public safety sector is sacrosanct,” Hoene says. “You tend to only see cuts move to public safety when [an economic] downturn's pretty deep, so the fact that we're seeing layoffs and cuts in funding for public safety services is indicative of just the times that we're in.”

Although a February NLC survey found that less than 10 percent of the responding cities were making cuts in public safety, Hoene says many of the cuts are happening in larger cities, such as Atlanta and Boston, where they are more noticeable. NLC has seen far more cuts to services like libraries and parks and recreation, but those departments do not cost as much as police and fire services. “When you've got to cut more money than you've had to cut in some time, the big money's in public safety,” Hoene says.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, chairman of the Fairfax, Va.-based International Association of Fire Chiefs' Safety, Health and Survival Section, agrees that fire departments are expensive to maintain. However, he says officials must be honest about the effects of cutting those services. Closing fire stations can lengthen response times, and laying off staff reduces the speed and efficiency with which the department actually fights fires. “You're not going to make money running a fire department, but that's not why local government was created,” Goldfeder says. “Local government was created in its most basic form to provide services to those paying the taxes.”

Fire service cuts burn deep

  • Los Angeles cancelled its July 2009 recruiting class.

  • In June, after closing several stations and implementing brownouts and hiring freezes over the past year, Atlanta found its ISO rating in danger of falling from a 2 to a 4.

  • In July, Boston eliminated two of its 11 fire districts and implemented rotating brownouts for three out of 34 engine companies and one of 22 ladder companies, based on absences.