There are some principles and practices in our political order that are settled, once and for all. They are simply beyond rational dispute. No one is arguing for a hereditary monarch, with a “divine right” to rule over us. No one seriously supports the reinstatement of chattel slavery. No one believes that homosexuals, Sabbath workers and disobedient children should be stoned to death. (Well, almost no one — there are, after all, a few “Christian Dominionists” still at large).
And almost no one has questioned the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin’s establishment in Philadelphia in 1736, of the first municipal fire department in colonial America.
Not until now.
Before fire-fighting became the business of local and state governments, fire-fighters were employed by insurance companies. Plaques placed on the front of homes and businesses identified the companies that underwrote the properties. If a fire alarm was answered by a cadre of fire-fighters from the “wrong” company, that was just tough luck. “Burn, baby, burn!” Many structures were lost while competing companies tried to sort out which was authorized to put out the fire.
Many more adjoining structures were consumed by fires that were oblivious to property lines.
Fires, as it happens, are not reducible to individual incidents affecting particular structures. They are public threats to communities at large. Accordingly, the task of fighting fires is appropriately assigned to municipal agencies, managed and financed by the community, which means, of course by the government. (See my “Privatization and Public Goods”).
Two hundred and seventy-one years of uncontested validation of this simple truth does not faze the libertarians and the regressives (self-described “conservatives”). Some of them are now proposing a giant step backward to privatized fire fighting. As Naomi Klein reports in The Nation:
Just look at what is happening in Southern California. Even as wildfires devoured whole swaths of the region, some homes in the heart of the inferno were left intact, as if saved by a higher power. But it wasn’t the hand of God; in several cases it was the handiwork of Firebreak Spray Systems. Firebreak is a special service offered to customers of insurance giant American International Group (AIG)–but only if they happen to live in the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country. Members of the company’s Private Client Group pay an average of $19,000 to have their homes sprayed with fire retardant. During the wildfires, the “mobile units”–racing around in red firetrucks–even extinguished fires for their clients.
One customer described a scene of modern-day Revelation. “Just picture it. Here you are in that raging wildfire. Smoke everywhere. Flames everywhere. Plumes of smoke coming up over the hills,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Here’s a couple guys showing up in what looks like a firetruck who are experts trained in fighting wildfire and they’re there specifically to protect your home.”
And your home alone. “There were a few instances,” one of the private firefighters told Bloomberg News, “where we were spraying and the neighbor’s house went up like a candle.” With public fire departments cut to the bone, gone are the days of Rapid Response, when everyone was entitled to equal protection.
Privatized fire fighting? It was a lousy idea in Ben Franklin’s time, and it is lousy idea today.
This is why:
Privatized fire fighting is inefficient. Several separate and uncoordinated fire crews struggling to save separate individual homes are far less efficient than a large, integrated and strategically organized “army” of fire-fighters. Add up the costs of manpower, equipment and losses to the fires, and the latter, coordinated, effort will always win, hands down. This will be so, even if every structure in the area is “protected” by one or another private company of “responders.” Imagine, for example, a street in which a line of houses is insured and protected, sequentially from left to right, by the fire crews of Acme, Inc., Gecko, Inc., Good Hands, Inc., Acme, Inc., Gecko, Inc., Good Hands, Inc. — then add a few more companies, in random order, as you continue down the street. See what I mean? It’s far less expensive and more efficient if one agency is protecting the neighborhood as a unit. But more significantly, this example demonstrates that:
Privatized fire fighting is ineffective. The approach described above — several independent companies protecting individual homes, randomly situated — is comparable to opposing an invading army with individual local police and sheriff departments. An invading army attacking with an integrated force and battle plan can only be defeated by an opposing army with a superior integrated force and battle plan. Supply lines, effective use of available equipment, deployment of personnel, geographical contingencies, must all be taken into account by the opposing generals as they plan attacks, defenses and counter-attacks. Indefensible lands must be yielded and their populations abandoned so that forces might regroup on defensible terrain. Command decisions must be communicated intact through the company commanders to the individual soldiers. Decisive advantage is enjoyed by the side with the accurate “Big Picture” of the entire battle, a “picture” that changes as the battle evolves.
Similarly, the massive wildfires that ravaged southern California in October and November, 2003, and again last month, had to be responded to strategically — with a consideration of available resources, of terrain, and of priorities. “The Big Picture.” Thus a dozen homes, located beyond a defensible fire line (a road or a stream), might have to be sacrificed so that several hundred might be saved. Structures close to water sources and to open roads have higher priority than other structures that are isolated and offer poor means of escape for the fire fighters. The wealth or the insurance arrangements of the respective owners are irrelevant to the strategic planning of the fire fighters.
Community pre-planning and preparation are also essential to disaster management. For example, last month, in the “Grass Valley” fire near my home, the mansions of the “have mores” at Lake Arrowhead were protected by the removal of a million dead and diseased trees by order of the “big government” U.S. Forest Service, and by the local government requirement that flammable brush be removed from the modest homes of the “proletariat.” Cooperative community action combined with a large-scale coordinated response by professional fire-fighters saved the day, as the fire was contained to 1200 acres and the loss of about two hundred out of ten thousand homes.. (See “The California Wildfires and Right Wing Smoke”).
In contrast, a private fire crew, “contracted” to save this particular house at 1234 My Castle Circle (not 1232 and not 1236), has no “big picture” in mind. The total concern of the crew is this house, and this house only.
Clearly, it’s a helluva way to fight a fire.
Privatized fire fighting is immoral. The determined regressive might reply that the neighborhood could avoid the “this house but not that house” problem by agreeing to hire a single private fire fighting company. (However, there would remain the “this neighborhood but not that neighborhood” problem. But let that pass). All members of the neighborhood would then be required to pay a fee to the company – “required,” because those who might otherwise not pay would nonetheless be at least partially protected by the fee-payers, i.e., they would be “free riders.” Hence a “coercion” (and implied “theft of property”) detested by Ayn Rand and the libertarians.
But this scheme puts the “regressive” neighborhood perilously close to installing a public fire department. What’s in a name? Call the neighborhood a “town,” the fee “taxes,” and the fire company a “fire department,” and what is the practical difference?
There is this difference: because of the high fees (due to the inefficiency problem, above) the neighborhood described here would have to be comprised of very wealthy home owners. And having paid exorbitant fees for individual fire protection, they would not be inclined to pay taxes to support city, county and state fire fighting agencies. In fact, San Diego County was ill-prepared for the fires of last month, due to successful tax-cutting proposals by anti-tax, anti-government conservative Republicans.
Accordingly, a privatization of fire protection, along with other emergency management services, increases and solidifies the stratification of society into the “have-nots” and “the have-mores.” “I have mine; you’re on your own.” The community then encompasses the neighborhood, but no more. Beyond the neighborhood is another country. Gone is the civic friendship that binds a nation together — the “equal justice under law,” the shared covenant enshrined in the founding documents of the republic, the sense that the national economy is a cooperative venture comprised of indispensable components: workers, investors, managers, and government.
Instead, we have George Bush’s “ownership society,” wherein today the wealthiest one percent of the population owns more than the bottom ninety percent, and that “ownership” of the oligarchs is increasing. Included in that one-percent of the country effectively “owned” by the “have-mores” are privatized fire and other emergency services, the media, the courts, private armies, the paperless touch-screen machines that count our votes and the secret software that compiles election returns, and, finally, via lobbyists and campaign contributions, the Congress of the United States.
This concentration of wealth and this privatization of essential public services and government functions are both symptoms and causes of a failing democracy and a disintegrating nation.
Our history, our laws, and our shared sense of justice all warn us of this.
It remains to be seen whether we the people of the United States, the “proletariat” 90%, have the collective power and resolution to reverse this slippery slide toward despotism.