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Community forum: A public option for fire fighting

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Posted on October 18, 2009 |
By Pieter Broucke



For all too long, firefighting in America has been the sole monopoly of government, usually organized at the very local level of cities and communities and often relying on volunteers. While firefighting serves the community, this public stranglehold needs to be broken for a variety of reasons.

First, firefighting is largely funded from taxes, raised from the already over-taxed American population, with much of the rest coming from bake sales. Second, there is no reason to assume that the government is better or more efficient at putting out fires than the private sector would be — if only given a chance. Third, private initiative and competition, as we all know, reduce costs, provide choice, and are American. Believe me, we need some real change here.

America should invite the private sector to set up competing, for-profit fire companies. It should rid itself entirely of tax-funded, government-controlled, and often volunteer-staffed public firefighting, as a way to lower taxes. Instead of a public firefighting system, consumers should have a choice between various private companies with whom they would contract for a fee to get fire protection.

Under this sensible plan, consumers would also have the choice between various plans — e.g., do they want to have fires put out in their homes alone, or also, and for an extra fee, in their garages?

They could let market forces affect their choice, but also ideology. Liberals could opt for the liberal firefighting company, while conservatives could opt for the conservative firefighting company. Fire companies could also be affiliated with religions and other interests. There would thus be a lot of healthy choices.

Since these for-profit companies would have to be able to make money, government regulations should be put in place by Congress to allow them to protect their financial interests, especially those of their shareholders and CEOs.

For instance, they should be able to reject prospective members on the basis of pre-existing conditions, say, a “bad” chimney or, worse still, “questionable” wiring. They should also be allowed to reject prospective members because they live in locations that are more difficult to reach, for instance on a one-way street. Or because they live in a two-story house.

These consumers, of course, would usually still be able to try to get firefighting coverage for an additional fee. But in the end, it would be up to the firefighting company to accept or deny coverage to “high-risk” prospective members.

These companies should of course be allowed to terminate coverage for, say, a second fire in a year or for illegally built additions, however small. Thus, these companies would be able to protect themselves financially, and keep the “profit” in “for-profit.” That is also the reason the public volunteer firefighters would have to go: They do not allow for a level competitive field.
For all too long, here in America we have tolerated the government-controlled and tax-funded public system of firefighting. Not surprisingly, it finds close parallels to firefighting systems in Communist countries such as Switzerland and Holland. There as well as here, the “public option” is the only option.

That is not the American way. We should break the tax-funded stranglehold of government on the business of firefighting and instead let the free market reign and let healthy competition reduce costs for everybody. (Well, at least those who can pay — but, hey, lower taxes for everybody.)

In short, we should model the future of American firefighting on the current American health-care system. And keep our government out of the business of putting out fires.

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