Saturday, December 6, 2008

Controversy for Controversy's Sake?

The running local blockbuster over at the News Journal's website this weekend is an interactive map that purports to provide data regarding whether or not the volunteer firefighter system still works for Delaware. You can find the map here.

I'm by no means a statistical expert, but I do have some basic knowledge of research and data analysis along with a good helping of common sense. Just a basic reading of the maps and numbers that TNJ is using here reveals the truly "geo-centric" and faux-compelling nature of this report and the fundamental disconnection between the headline and the data they present.

To say that the piece is misleading is an insult to spin-mongers everywhere. First of all, here are the data legends for the two statistics that they show us:

The first legend shows fire call response times as compared to the standard set by the National Fire Protection Association. They take this entire data set out of context for the reader by not saying what the standard is nor what percentage of national fire stations meet the standard. Second, they have two categories at the top: "meets standard" and "meets standard only." If they wanted to be really clear here, they would have said what they mean here: "exceeds standard" and "meets standard." Unfortunately, they chose to be controversial instead of honest.

The second legend shows the "'profit margins'" of the fire companies. TNJ should know better...our volunteer fire companies are non-profit corporations that are prohibited from "turning a profit" that can be passed on to shareholders, which is what "profit" means to the public. They could have chosen any word for this other than "profit" (e.g., surplus, excess revenue), but they chose the word "profit" seemingly to reinforce the idea that our fire companies "make too much money." The truth, of course is that most of the money is either public funds or donations from local residents, neither of which could be called "profit" since these fire companies do not sell anything to anyone (except maybe renting out their buildings for weddings and bar mitzvahs).

The maps themselves are also misleading because they collapse so much data into such simple categories and nice pretty colors to distract the reader. But more importantly, they reveal the clear and uncontroversial answer to TNJ's headline question.

Here is the map for departments' "profits":

I don't know about you, but I feel much better knowing that a good portion of the fire departments have some extra money on hand for building and expanding and buying modern equipment than if it were the other way around. Hey Gannett, what happens when your company doesn't turn a profit? You probably have to cut jobs, right? How would you feel if our fire departments didn't have enough money and started cutting volunteers and using old, outdated equipment?

Here is the map of response times for fire companies up in yankee country:

Looks pretty bad right? Oh my! We need to overhaul our fire departments, right? I'm not sure the data fits the question here. The better question would be WHY response times in northern NCC are so bad. The answer can probably be boiled down to three things--Traffic, Development Density, and Suburban Sprawl--all three of which go hand-in-hand...and all three of which have nothing at all to do with whether or not our fire companies are volunteer or paid.

To add to this critical deficiency, look at the maps of response times for all of us down here in the slower lower areas:

The entire southern 80% of the state is served by volunteer fire departments that exceed the national standard. So, we're supposed to believe that the companies in the north are the exception that proves the rule?

This entire dog and pony show is an exercise in agitation that undermines a system that, as a whole is working well despite bad state decisions regarding development and infrastructure. So, TNJ wants us to turn the operation over to the state or county governments with their merit employment systems and expensive government benefits? Yeah, because DelDOT and NCC are working and managing their finances so well, it just makes sense! Please.

Why, just why? Why do this? Why agitate the public and upset our many honorable volunteer firemen and women? To the editors at The News Journal: Leave our well-oiled and well-funded fire departments alone! And until you do some real research and get some decent data to throw our way, stop doing stuff like this. We're not fooled and we don't want to be a New Jersey or a Southeast Pennsylvania.

If you have a different read of this data, please respond in the comments and let me know. Maybe I misread the whole thing, but I don't think so. Thanks!

UPDATE: The Sunday News Journal has published the text article to accompany the map data here. The comments on the article page are delightfully ridiculous so far.


Delaware Watch said...

Wow! This is truly great critique! You undercut the entire analysis of the News Journal.

Anonymous said...

Very good break down. Most of the educated people who look between the lines will see this as very misleading information. I must say the maps of the "closest company" are really bad, that is unless equipment can fly. I wish that they could have attacked bigger issues with the service, such as manpower, and training standards. The quote from Mr. Klima stating that untrained persons are calling the shots is true. Many Departments are being run operationaly by very uneducated "good ole boys" These departments are suspending qualifications for office to get thier buddies in office. I belive the safety of our state fire fighters is in jepordy, and it said to say that a fire fighter being killed maybe the only way these companies will be forced to open up thier eye's.