I vow that I will occasionally write shorter posts – probably scary facts about disasters and possible impacts. I have this strange, and probably false, idea that facts make communities prepare better, or at least understand why we can’t count on the government to rescue us. Besides, they’re interesting!

If people remotely believe that first responders can respond to all the emergency needs of a regional disaster, they’re sadly mistaken. In Portland, Oregon, there are 75o firemen. With a population of 593,820, that equals one firefighter for every 792 people. More importantly, they are about 40 trucks for both fires and medical emergencies, which means responding to 40 locations maximum at one time in the entire Portland area (and probably far less, as most responses need more than 1 truck). You can add about 200 more EMTs and paramedics with ambulances for purely medical problems, but they generally do not handle rescue situations alone.

In Salem, Oregon, we’re even lower with 161 firefighters, or one for every 1018 citizens. I think we have 17 trucks and engines, if you count reserves. That’s only 17 places to respond to at once. Thank goodness, Salem’s firefighters are all paramedics, which is not required in Portland, so at least all have good medical training. In both places, police are a bit better, with one officer for every 600-900 people, but their disaster roles are more public safety, checking roads, crime prevention, and crowd control. This all assumes that entire fire and police departments will report to work. In reality, some staff will be on vacation, off sick, or unable to reach the stations.

The wonders of basic math show the limits of professional help if there is a widespread disaster. I’d bet all communities are similar. The solution (like so many of my posts), is that you need to depend on your family and neighbors for emergency assistance. If you have a neighbor doctor or nurse willing to help, so much the better. Get to know your neighbors now!

Stay safe,


(This scary fact might be worth remembering when politicians discuss public support for fire departments, although in truth, I don’t think any amount of money will solve the basic math problem.

Photo By Hikosaemon

Odaiba fire in Tokyo after March 2011 earthquake

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