Privatization of fire protection, especially in the Western US, 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. 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 and response times were slow.
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.
With California's 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. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.