By Kevin Meyer
An article in today's Wall Street Journal made me think a bit about organizational scope creep.
It takes twice as many firefighters to put out half as many fires as it did 30 years ago. Fewer fires because of better fire safety is one reason, but another is the dispatch of overqualified firefighters and their vehicles to things that aren't fires.
In Orange County, Calif., only 2% of responses involve fires. In Massachusetts the figure is 5%—only because Massachusetts doesn't count emergencies that don't result in injury or property damage.
The Orange County Grand Jury, an official watchdog agency, is the latest to plumb this phenomenon: "This transition from fire emergencies to medical emergencies has not generated major changes in the operation model. . . . Each emergency call generally results in both fire trucks and ambulances being dispatched to the site of the emergency regardless of the type of emergency."
What would really make sense, of course, is properly manned fire trucks responding only to fires, leaving other emergencies to one- or two-person police or ambulance crews.
The article describes several similar situations, and provides a lot of fodder for those that believe government has become too large or that there's an alternative to raising taxes. But that's not my point and I won't go there.
It's not just big cities. Here in my small central coast beach town, I regularly see ambulances go up the street to check on my plethora of retired elderly neighbors… followed by a couple of large fire engines. Of course the police blotter in this town is filled with such nepharious activities as "Mildred heard a noise but it ended up being her gate swinging in the wind." Or something mischievious happening at the local "medical" marijuana dispensary.
The scope of the fire department has changed over the years, and now includes responding to medical emergencies. Perhaps that's entirely appropriate as firefighters have EMT training. But as noted above the operational model hasn't changed, so unnecessary equipment and personnel also respond, therefore the response cost has increased.
We could identify innumerable other examples of this in government – safety nets that have become entitlements provided to 100 million citizens, intelligence strategies that have become "proactive" offensive missions (see! I covered both sides!), etc. All requiring more money – more taxes – to provide a skewed but now expected level of service.
But my point is that the same happens in business. How many bandaids upon bandaids of "quality checks" or "signature approvals" get added because managers don't have the guts (ok, "no time") to attack the root cause of a problem or issue? How many non-value added admin groups expand and expand thanks to managers focusing on power instead of what's best for the organization? How many times does a senior manager have to get involved to make very small decisions because the folks that actually own and run the process aren't empowered – or trained – to make the decision.
When do you use a fire truck when an ambulance would do just fine?