How safety forces hose the public

June 16, 2005
There has been a big change in the way safety forces respond to routine fender-benders, at least where I live.
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Khol editorials

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When I drive to the office, I use a freeway having four lanes in each direction. Initially, if there was a fender-bender, a single police car would show up, and as soon as possible, the police would have the damaged vehicles moved to the shoulder so that all four lanes would remain open to traffic. Then, a fire-department ambulance began showing up with the police car regardless of whether or not anyone was injured. (As an aside, I'll mention that the police also began to leave the vehicles wherever they collided, apparently unmindful of the terrible traffic tieups this creates.) Next, two police cars began showing up along with the ambulance. Then a fire truck began showing up along with the ambulance and two police cars. With all these vehicles spread over the highway, every minor collision essentially shut down the freeway.

In the many years I have traveled past these accidents, I rarely if ever saw any people injured. So at first I couldn't figure out why the ambulances showed up. Likewise, there were rarely any fires, so I couldn't figure out why the fire trucks were on the scene. And the only purpose of the second police car seemed to be to add to the congestion.

Then newspaper articles began to shed light on the matter. What they revealed is that typical big-city fire departments today are woefully underworked. Fireman, today, spend most of their runs taking elderly people to the emergency room for sprained ankles. More or less typical is the situation at one Washington, D.C., firehouse where the crew can't recall being called to a significant fire in the last 18 months. So one reason firemen respond to automobile accidents is to relieve their boredom.

The biggest reason, however, is the fact that many communities now charge to send fire trucks to accident scenes. A fireman hands a clipboard to the drivers involved in an accident and asks them to sign a form, which most drivers do reflexively without question. Bingo! The driver's signature lets the fire department ding the drivers insurance company for a charge. For example, the city of Cleveland now charges $590 to send a fire truck to a minor accident, and it charges $850 to free people from wreckage. The city expects to generate up to $2.5 million annually from this practice. An adjacent suburb expects to build three firehouses with the money collected from appearing at accident scenes.

How bad does it get? Recently, not far from my house on a residential street, three cars were involved in a chain-reaction rear-end collision. It was distinctly minor, and with a quick look as I drove past, I couldn't even see any discernable body damage. Unbelievably, this accident drew three police cars, an ambulance, a fire truck, and the fire chief. The revenue generated by responding to accidents helps cities perpetuate the overstaffing.

How much resulting featherbedding is there in municipal safety forces? An example is what I saw from my office window, which at the time overlooked Lake Erie. One day, police and emergency vehicles begin arriving at a pier jutting into the lake. I didn't know what the calamity was, but I was flabbergasted to see a mix of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances exceeding 14 vehicles. (There were so many vehicles and they were crowded so closely together that I couldn't get an accurate count.)

Later I found out that several days earlier, a woman bent on suicide had jumped off the pier and drowned. It was the discovery of her body washing ashore that had brought some 50 policemen, firemen, and paramedics to the scene. Evidently, time weighs heavily on the hands of the underworked safety forces, and when they heard about the body on the police and fire-radio frequencies, the huge crowd rushed to the scene to put some excitement in their day.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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