Tracy Westen is CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies, which develops model laws and media solutions to improve governance and civic engagement. We asked him to join the conversation about privatized firefighting raised in this week's segment "Fire, Inc."
Government services for public safety, such as fire prevention, should not be undermined by forces of privatization.
A private company must maximize profit to favor shareholders. But some services are so important to public safety that their provision should not be left to bottom-line oriented forces of supply and demand.
Some argue that individual homeowners should pay private companies to protect their properties, but the complex nature of fighting massive fires argues against its privatization especially in individual cases. Insurance company contracted firefighters are concerned with protecting a particular dwelling. They work for the insurance company that hired them, not necessarily for the public good. They may have little incentive to save adjacent properties, although adjacent properties that catch fire can aggravate the danger to others.
Private firefighters also undermine the capabilities of city and county firefighters. As private homeowners pay more and more for private firefighting, the tax base that supports county firefighters may decrease. Other homeowners may suffer.
A plethora of public and private firefighting units in the cramped and dangerous spaces caused by rapidly spreading fires have trouble communicating with each other. Private firefighters do not communicate through emergency channels set up to minimize overall fire damage and protect citizens.
During our recent wildfires, the public professional command structure complained when private independent firefighters responded for individual clients. They say it cannot be known what level of training the private forces have received or what training private companies demand. It’s therefore difficult to coordinate with someone whose capacities and training are unknown.
Even knowing where independent units are located is difficult if not impossible, and in some cases the equipment of such units may block roadways and hinder the ability of the government firefighters to protect citizens.
The government may have to divert its attention to assist and perhaps even rescue private units when government resources are more urgently needed elsewhere in the fire. There is always the possibility that the efforts of private companies may put other property in greater danger because they do not have any responsibility to fight the general fire.
Private firefighting lacks “economies of scale,” since it requires both public and private organizations to create duplicative communications systems, fire trucks and other expensive equipment.
Finally, privatized firefighting excludes those who lack the financial ability to pay for it. It creates a confusing and perhaps demoralizing two-tired level of protection―private for those who can afford it, public for those who cannot.
California has suffered a protracted period of wildfires. Fighting the fires and keeping people safe is the responsibility of government. A piecemeal approach to containing a wildfire will not do.
Government supported fire protection may be more efficient, in the long run, than piecemeal privatized efforts.