Municipal fire departments are equipped and staffed to keep structure fires from growing into conflagrations. To be effective, they need dense networks of fire stations equipped with pumpers and aerial ladder trucks. National standards call for a minimum of four firefighters per unit.

But structure fires are now the least of fire-department responses. They have declined by 50 percent over the past 40 years and now account for 20 percent or less of fire-department calls. Personnel costs take up over 90 percent of fire-department budgets, which generally are local governments' second-highest general-fund expense, behind only the costs of police departments.

The combination of high costs and fewer fires is causing municipal leaders to push for closing fire stations and assigning fewer firefighters to the remaining units. Fire chiefs argue that cutting costs by closing stations and using smaller crews increases the likelihood of devastating fires. It also affects firefighter safety, and federal studies back those claims.

Fire departments try to increase their value to the public by taking on more duties. Examples are medical emergencies, hazardous-material spills and technical rescues, such as from water mishaps, cave-ins and building collapses. But even with those additional duties, firefighters still spend over 80 percent of their time standing by for structure fires. They also respond to non-fire calls in their pumpers and ladder trucks in order to stay ready for fire response. That often leads to claims of wasted resources, since two firefighters on smaller units could handle the bulk of those calls.

The situation poses a huge dilemma in terms of costs to taxpayers, but a viable solution is at hand: Many localities already are augmenting smaller career fire crews with college students who serve as temporary firefighters.

In lieu of salaries, these supplementary firefighters receive varying levels of support primarily aimed at helping them cover their college expenses. For example, the two college student/firefighters on the Red Lodge, Mont., fire department spend 36 hours per week on duty and receive free living quarters in return. The Auburn, Ala., fire department supplements its 40 career firefighters with 60 full-time college student/firefighters; the city covers their college tuition and provides modest hourly wages and free living quarters.

The cost benefits are clear and compelling: On average, a municipal government can fund two college student/firefighter positions for every career position. More than 250 U.S. fire departments, ranging from one-station departments to those with close to 50, now use this option.

Here's an example of how one big-city fire department could use college student/firefighters to cut costs: The Kansas City, Mo., Fire Department staffs 34 stations with 32 pumpers and 10 ladder trucks. It also has seven rescue squads, four aircraft rescue trucks and a hazardous-materials truck. College student/firefighters are not qualified to serve on those specialized units, which require advanced training and expertise, but that still leaves 42 units that could use college student/firefighters.

Staffing each of those units with an officer and three firefighters requires 126 firefighters on duty per day. If the department replaced one career position on each pumper and ladder truck with a college student/firefighter, that number would change to 84 career and 42 college student/firefighters. The department uses a three-shift rotation, so it has at least two off-duty firefighters for each one on duty. The average annual firefighter salary of $48,000 could support two college student/firefighters, thus enabling the department to fill at least 126 firefighter positions for the cost of 63.

In addition to reducing salary costs, college student/fighters would also reduce the city's pension burden. First, the lower compensation would require smaller pension contributions. In addition, only one out of four college student/fighters typically elect to become permanent employees of their fire departments. Thus, the city's portion of the pension contributions for the student/firefighters who move on to other occupations would remain in the fund and further reduce its burden.

College student/firefighter programs are win-win solutions. They enable local governments to maintain enough firefighters to effectively combat structure fires and maintain firefighter safety. And to the extent that budget issues lead municipal leaders and citizens to view fire departments as necessary evils, the programs can help them be seen as valued assets.