Privatizing Fire Protection is Going to Burn

MONTEREY, Calif. - 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''

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.

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