Peter Funt

Privatizing fire protection

By Peter Funt
June 30, 2009
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WHILE NEW ENGLANDERS ponder just how soggy a summer this might be, Californians are bracing for another dangerously dry season, with high temperatures and increased risk of fire. Nationwide, there have already been over 41,000 wildfires this year - 10,000 more than the 10-year average.

And as fire danger climbs here in the West, fire protection is gradually being added to the list of essential services for which the rich are better off than their less fortunate neighbors. It’s a list that already includes better healthcare for those with costly medical insurance; better education for those who can afford expensive private schools; greater personal safety for wealthy residents able to fund private security patrols.

Privatization of fire protection, especially in the Western United States, has emerged in several forms. In some instances, private contractors are hired by state and local government to deal with extreme fire emergencies. The National Wildfire Suppression Association, formed in 1991, represents over 150 private firms that employ firefighters and equipment to assist locally on an “as needed’’ basis.

Quite a different form of private fire protection is being funded by large insurance companies. Last year, Chubb Corp. began offering fire protection to its clients in 13 Western states as long as their homes have a replacement value of at least $1 million. According to an Associated Press report, Fireman’s Fund has retained private fire fighting companies in California; AIG employs private firms to dispense fire-retardant foam on valuable homes as soon as there is a wildfire threat for clients in the 200 wealthiest Western zip codes.

Yet another, more socially vexing concept is the one designed by companies such as Golden Valley Fire Suppression, based in Carmel Valley, Calif. Next month the firm will begin selling private fire services directly to property owners in areas already served by municipal fire departments. For a fee of $30,000, the company will supply fire protection for as long as the customer owns the home. It plans to station its own fire trucks in carefully chosen “clusters’’ near paying customers in order to guarantee a response time of under five minutes. Golden Valley intends to launch similar operations in Las Vegas and Tucson.

It’s hard to fault wealthy homeowners for seeking additional protection for valuable property, especially after several years of devastating wildfires in California. A turning point for many came in October 2007 when fire destroyed over 375 homes near San Diego in an area where local fire protection was inadequate.

On the other hand, an increasing role for private firms in basic safety services such as fire and police protection prompts concern over training procedures, reliability, and accountability. Moreover, privatization can lead to a spiral in which reduced public services cause increased private involvement, which, in turn, leads to even more cuts in public funding.

What happens to those residents in areas served by Golden Valley who decline to purchase the high-priced private fire protection? As private service expands, publicly funded fire service is likely to become even less reliable. Municipalities are less likely to fund additional fire protection in areas where it is largely handled by the private sector.

The very term “private sector’’ is central to the overarching debate among conservatives and liberals about the responsibility of government to fully fund basic services. Why not allow the private sector to take over as much as possible? The IRS is turning to private companies to collect taxes for a fee. The military uses private police to provide security in Iraq. Many states, including California, are housing inmates in prisons run by private businesses. With each such arrangement, the potential for abuse becomes painfully clear.

Of course, the public sector isn’t without its own history of costly abuses. But the remedy cannot be abandoning vital public services, or placing them in the hands of less-than-fully-accountable firms, in ways that favor the affluent.

In California, with its horrendous $24 billion budget deficit, virtually every area of tax-supported operations faces cutbacks. How severely basic services like fire protection are curtailed, or restructured, is a burning question.

Peter Funt is a writer and TV host.

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