Privatized Fire Service. A term that strikes fear into the hearts of the true and traditional Fire Service members. The concept and practice has been getting a lot of bad press lately, and rightly so. However, I’m not here to fear monger and spread panic on the practice. I feel that if operated correctly, private fire departments can be beneficial. I also feel that there is a very fine and difficult line to walk.
First and foremost: I believe the majority of firefighters in private services are much like us. Private firefighters are on duty providing a service to their community and not just for the paycheck. But I do believe a profit driven Fire Service doesn’t hold true with the heart and mindset of the Fire Service.
Here’s a brief history of the privatized Fire Service. Privatized fire service started in the 18th and 19th century with the use of Fire Marks. These signs were placed on the buildings who’s owners purchased a company’s fire insurance.
When responding to a fire, these fire insurance companies would see their fire mark on the building and extinguish the blaze. This is a similar type of concept that private fire companies in our age are using, albeit, an outdated concept because it disregards the interests of humanity in favor of a bottom-line.
I see the financial benefits of a privatized company. It can save a municipality thousands of dollars and yes, maybe even operated more efficiently by an experienced business man. However, these things should not be the primary focus of the Fire Service. I strongly believe that when our priority shifts from community service to profit margins, that’s when we lose our identity as a Fire Service. Our priorities have always been life safety, incident stabilization and property conservation. That should never change and most definitely, money should never show up on that list.
The dangers of a privatized fire service are many and deadly. Subscription based and competitive based private fire companies are often put in a position to refuse services. As we’ve seen time and time again in recent news stories, for-profit fire companies show up on the scene of a home ablaze, and stand at the end of the driveway watching the show because the homeowner didn’t pay their annual fee or subscription. Half the time the homeowner wasn’t aware the service existed and assumed they were covered through the taxes they paid yearly. As firefighters, we should never be in a position to refuse service to anyone. I feel that if you are able to look someone in the eye with their home burning in the background and say, “sorry ma’am/sir, you didn’t pay your annual fee.” , then you don’t belong in this line of work. This job, my brotherhood, isn’t about the money, it’s about the service, and anything that sullies this principal is a affront to the brotherhood itself and what we stand for. This scenario is a deplorable breach of public trust and reflects poorly on all of us.
Response times are another issue. While a municipal Fire Department may be within minutes of your home, the subscription based service may be several minutes away. With current building construction and possibly even lives on the line, those minutes could be the difference between a life or home lost or saved.
Competitive fire fighting shouldn’t even be a term in our vocabulary! Profit based firefighting breeds competition with municipal and private companies alike. Mutual aid is a mindset every department should have in the modern culture of the fire service. We should never be afraid to ask for help from our neighboring brothers and sisters! Being in competition with these other departments as a private service breeds resentment along with that competition and puts the firefighters at unnecessary risk.
Who regulates the costs and fees and keeps them from becoming astronomical? In a recent news article, i read how a family was charged a nearly $20,000 bill for firefighting services on a home that was burned completely to the ground. Read the full news article here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/08/justin-purcell-fire_n_4242734.html. For a period until legislation and regulation can be put into effect by local, state, or federal governments, what is to stop these companies from charging an arm and a leg to provide the same service your taxes usually cover? Even more so, some of these companies don’t even have to follow the same standards and levels of professionalism and licensing that the municipal departments have to hold to.
Another problem comes from when management is profit/business driven and employees are service driven. When the upper and lower employment levels have two different missions, it’s difficult to run an efficient department. A car drives best when all the wheels are spinning in the same direction. How can we all accomplish the same goal when our goals are different?
Privatization, when done wrong, is deadly. Without proper goals, regulation, and mindset, two results will occur: you will have a failed business on your hands or you will kill someone.
Now it’s time to hear your voice. I want to hear your opinions, experiences and takes on the privatization of the fire service. I ask that you comment on the Facebook post or the story itself and tell me what you think!