Living Next to the Busiest Fire Station in America

I live on Folsom Street, San Francisco, a few doors down from the busiest responder fire station in the US. The station was not here when we moved in almost 10 years ago — when South of Market was still a sleepy, light industrial area of car repair, porn shops and night clubs. Back then it was only hard to find parking at about 10pm on a Saturday and my morning runs were along sidewalks gloriously free of pedestrians, scooters, and dog walkers. But more than any other SF neighborhood save perhaps Mission, South of Market has gone through a radical transition as car repair and porn shops have been kicked out to make room for the varied multitudes of internet companies and the businesses that love them (i.e. Deli’s selling artisanal pastrami sandwiches for $16). One other new resident is the fire station at 935 Folsom. It too has a quintessential San Francisco back story. It had previously resided at 680 Howard, half a mile away and around the block from the SF MOMA. When Donald Fisher, founder of GAP, bequeathed his modern art collection, out of largest and tax deduction purposes, he wanted a space dedicated to it. So the powers that be decided the fire station was perfect for an Annex. Our lucky block was selected as the location for the replacement station. One of the myths of San Francisco is that it takes forever, if ever, to get anything big done. The truth has always been that when the powers that be decide they want something, it happens and it happens fast. Sure there were public discussions and community input meetings, but it was all for show. Lickidy split the new Station went up with no real accommodation to any neighbors like us (noise insulation, traffic light, public art, etc etc).

So soon enough the roar of the trucks ripping out of the station has become a backdrop to our lives. Even though Folsom is one-way, sometimes the truck pulls out and heads the wrong way to get to 6th street all the quicker. You can imagine the looks of terror on the faces of motorists and bicyclists (Folsom is a bike lane east — west superhighway) as a 35 ton truck barrels towards them lights-a-blazin. Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Why is SF fire station 1 the busiest responder station in the country? Does San Francisco really have that many fires or fireman specific needs? In a word, no. In fact, as a recent NYT article on the station noted, only 2% of all truck runs are fire-related. So what about the other 98% of truck runs? This is where 6th street comes in.

6th street is SF’s skid row of Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) buildings. These buildings house indigent and disabled individuals, largely men. Unlike New York’s meatpacking district which was owned by private slum lords, San Francisco’s SROs are owned by nonprofits whose stated mission is to serve the poor — a noble one no doubt. But it has meant that as SF overall has gentrified there remains an island of extreme poverty — with the drug and alcohol abuse that goes with it — right in the heart of SF. whereas in New York the slum lords sold out so that Trump and his ilk could throw up glass walled castles for the aristocracy. As many, though certainly not all, of the tenants are committing slow motion suicide by drugs & alcohol, it is a regular occurrence that someone is OD’ed or passed out in the middle of the sidewalk. The ambulance is called. And the fire truck chases the ambulance. Here is where it gets weird. Even though over the last 30 years the number of fires nationwide has declined by 40% — thanks to better building codes and know-how, the number of firemen has increased by 40%. The way this was accomplished by lobbying by the Firemen Unions to expand the scope of their mission and the number one way they did this is to require the Fire Truck to follow the ambulance on every call. I’ve yet to find an ‘official reason’ but here the top quora response by an EMT which seems to be representative:

It depends on the region you are in, but the fire truck usually goes for one of three reasons: 1) as manpower, 2) to provide a higher level of care, or 3) as part of a combined system.

At first glance, this seems reasonable. But once you think about it doesn’t make sense at all. Wouldn’t it be easier to put another person on the ambulance? Or for that matter, buy a Ford Explorer and plop some people on that? Why send a 35 ton truck full of 8 tons of water for a homeless person passed out on the sidewalk? The true answer is that facing fire station closures, firemen unions lobbied to be spare paramedics and assist ambulances even though no rational person designing a system to handle these issues would settle on that as a solution.

And they are extremely effective at lobbying as this recent article demonstrates Most people have a very favorable view of firefighters — one of my earliest memory is of firefighters throwing candy from the truck during a 4th of July parade. And most people operate under the delusion that firefighters, you know, fight fires — not sit around while EMTs inject Naloxone into a heroin overdose victim.

I personally had a run in with the absurdity of this setup. A few years back we were having our condo re-painted. I was working from home for a start-up and was upstairs all day while the painter painted the main room of our loft. After he left, I started having breathing difficulties and felt like I was suffocating. After a quick call to 911, an ambulance came and I was helped by an EMT to stop hyperventilating. Oh, and there were a bunch of firemen standing around next to their truck which they had driven around the block to park in front of our building. That’s right, rather than walk 20 feet to left of their station, they hopped in the truck, turned on the lights and made three rights and then parked in front of my building while the EMTs did their work. This is absurd and, more important, extremely expensive. Firemen and fire stations are not cheap. In fact, guess who was the number #1 paid employee of San Francisco’s government? The mayor? Nope. The Head of IT? Nope. A deputy chief of a fire station made over half a million dollars in one year thanks to overtime:

Allow me to repeat — a fireman made more than most CEO’s and many of us ever will. And 98% of their job is driving the truck to wherever the ambulance is going. Any rational person looking at this knows this doesn’t make any sense. So why does this absurdity persist? Because firemen and firemen’s unions care a lot and the rest of us care a little or not at all. This asymmetry of desire allows a patently absurd and extremely inefficient system to last.

For those of us in the neighborhood, it can even mean death. One day the fire truck roared out of the station, made a quick right and suddenly the tail of the truck — which can operate independent of the front steering, swung out into other lane striking a motorcyclist and mortally injuring him. The fireman responsible for the rear steering immediately disappeared — against department rules that he stay on site for drug and alcohol testing. In turns out he went into a local bar and was chugging pitchers of water to sober up. When he finally showed up an hour later he still tested above a 10% blood alcohol level. The kicker is that despite having committed manslaughter while drunk, the firemen’s union fought his suspension! Talk about the public unions not having the public’s interests at heart.

In summation, while I’m sure everyone at the station is a decent fellow (except the drunk who killed someone and who I can only hope at least got fired), the station should not exist. It should be closed and SF should add some other ambulance support system to handle manpower or care issues. Whether this is better upfront diagnostics on the 911 call, i.e. ‘are you obese’, or just getting a Ford explorer with some paramedics to follow the ambulance, anything is cheaper and less dangerous than sending a 35 ton truck hurtling around San Francisco’s streets.

I start my blog with this story because one its goals is to explore what appear to be arbitrary rules and systems that defy common sense and in fact, upon digging, reveal themselves to be not arbitrary at all. In fact they are purposely defined by a small sliver of people to advantage them at the expense of everyone else. I call it asymmetry of desire: issues where a small group ~10% feel very strongly, a few ~40% feel somewhat strongly and most ~50% feel nothing about at all. Upon closer inspection, the inefficiencies caused by these arbitrary non-sensical rules are very profitable for someone. In these situations, the passionate rule the day and can setup the system to benefit themselves at the expense of the common good. Once you start looking, these asymmetries are everywhere. From public unions to the NRA. One of the most famous asymmetries of desire historically was the passing of prohibition, where 10% foaming-at-the-mouth abolitionists were able to pass prohibition over the 60–70% of Americans who were for drinking now and then.