The Fires review

The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of CitiesThe Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City-and Determined the Future of Cities by Joe Flood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a pretty interesting book! I didn’t realize that New York City had a huge fire problem in the 70’s, and at first the book provided a lot of background about the mayor, the fire chief, etc. to the point where it got to be a bit much. But then the author did a great job of laying out how the problem started and got worse through a series of bad decisions. The main theme is that it was mostly the fault of a technocratic City Hall, for example:
– Robert Moses (the city planner) had a lot of power to impose a top-down vision for what the city should be like, and used it to destroy a bunch of housing and industrial buildings to build highways, parks, and office towers. This included “slum clearance” which people thought would get rid of the slums, but instead just made the lower-income people move elsewhere in the city, including the South Bronx. The deindustrialization caused even more poverty.
– This caused more fires as a result of crowded living conditions, etc. John O’Hagan (the fire chief) was a technocratic type (as was the mayor) and hired the RAND Corporation to try to make the fire department more efficient.
– RAND did a study about which firehouses were busiest, but they didn’t gather very much data, and what they did gather was not very reliable because firemen didn’t care about them and would often make up their response times, etc. Then the way RAND analyzed the data was laughably simplistic – they concluded that adding two firehouses in the same district was causing more false alarms and therefore was a waste of resources. But all they measured was the number of runs a firehouse went on, which includes false alarms – but false alarms are very quick to deal with, since the fire engine would just drive by, see no smoke, and return back to the firehouse. If you look at the fires that they actually had to fight, the second firehouse made a noticeable difference.
– There’s also some evidence that the O’Hagan didn’t care about what he called “ghetto fires” and was more concerned/interested in high-rise fires. To be fair, he literally wrote the book on new techniques for fighting them that are still being used today. So when the models came back saying to close firehouses in poorer neighborhoods he didn’t push back.
– New York City was on the verge of going bankrupt in the 70’s, which led to more cuts from the fire department.
– The author also points out that while Tammany Hall was certainly corrupt, they were corrupt in the “you have to keep constituents happy by giving them jobs, but take some off the top for yourself” way, which while not optimal at least meant they were responsive to the citizens. There were literally riots in the streets because of the fires/poor conditions, but the mayor was convinced he was doing the right thing and stayed the course.

So, yeah! Pretty interesting book.

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