Firefighters across the country are being called on to provide emergency health care to the poor, much like emergency room doctors. The New York Times calls the trend part of “the hidden costs of the health care crisis.” About 80 percent of the calls handled by Engine Company 10 in Washington, D.C., are medical emergencies because the firehouse serves one of the city's poorest areas, where few residents have health insurance, doctors' checkups are rare, and medical problems fester until someone dials 911.
In many big cities, the problem is compounded by budget shortfalls that have led to the elimination or proposed elimination of 6,000 firefighter jobs in the past year, or about 2 percent of all firefighters, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters. At the same time, emergency calls have increased by 1.2 million, or 3.5 percent, compared with the year before. In New York City, only about 45 percent of the 473,335 calls answered by firefighters last year involved medical emergencies. The city's Emergency Medical Service handles most medical calls, responding to 1.2 million last year.