When Lou Witzeman moved to the outskirts of Phoenix in 1947, the last thing on his mind was fire fighting. At 22, he was the youngest city editor in Arizona, earning all of $60 a week at the now-defunct Arizona Times. Today, at 50, he is the president, treasurer, and sole stockholder of America's largest and most successful private enterprise fire fighting company: Rural/Metro Fire Department, Inc. With 34 stations, 92 vehicles, and nearly 500 full-time and part-time employees, the company provides fire protection services to over 383,000 Arizonans—some 18 percent of the state's population. And it does it at a profit: how much, Witzeman doesn't say, but his rapidly-expanding business ($2.6 million in 1974) makes sufficient money to finance an ongoing research and development program and operate a profit-sharing plan for its (nonunion) employees.
Witzeman never intended to become a firefighter—or an entrepreneur. But when he discovered that the unincorporated area where he had bought his house had no fire protection, it occurred to him to organize a cooperative fire department. So he went around to his neighbors seeking pledges of $10 each to purchase a fire engine, and soon found that: (1) most of the people who said they would contribute, didn't, and (2) if a fire department of any sort was going to come into being, he was going to have to set it up himself. Eventually, he raised $10,000, bought a used fire truck and a pickup, hired four men, and hung out a shingle "Fire Service For Sale." After nearly going broke the first year (he quickly went back to school and learned accounting), the business took hold and has been growing almost continuously ever since.
At first the company operated solely on a subscription basis, offering fire protection service to individual subscribers for an annual fee. Rural/Metro still does a lot of subscription business in rural areas, serving some 38,000 subscribers at present. But in 1952 one of its principal subscriber areas incorporated as the City of Scottsdale. Impressed by the low-cost but competent service Witzeman had been providing in the area, the new city's government decided against setting up a city fire department; instead, they negotiated an annual contract for Rural/Metro to provide the city's fire protection, becoming, de facto, the city's fire department. The arrangement has continued, year by year, to this day, to the mutual satisfaction of the company and the city government. Not to mention the taxpayers—fire protection in Scottsdale, now grown to 96,000 people, costs only $8 per capita, barely one-third the national average for cities of 50-100,000 people. The city recently extended Rural/Metro's contract for five more years. The company also contracts with four other incorporated cities, five new unincorporated cities, and three fire districts. In addition to fire service, in several locations the company also provides security and ambulance services.
As a private fire department, Rural/Metro is something of an anomaly. "Unlike many other businesses," laments Witzeman, "we pay a constant, never-ending price for being different. Nobody ever heard of a privately owned fire department. We are beseiged with small but important problems all the way from buying liability insurance to financing capital improvements. We do not fit into anybody's rule book, and in this punchcard civilization of ours, that makes us suspect." As a private businessman, Witzeman has been dealing for years with issues that are just now giving government fire chiefs fits: hiring women, paying time-and-a-half for work beyond 40 hours per week, dealing with OSHA regulations, etc. Witzeman takes such challenges in stride, and incorporates them into his operations.
Having to make a profit has forced Witzeman to develop numerous innovations in firefighting methods—everything from custom-designed pumpers and king-size hose to innovative staffing policies and the lime-yellow color of the trucks (for best night-time visibility). Witzeman has little respect for traditional methods in this often-stagnant field. "Firefighting," he notes, "is the perfect expression of what can happen when you don't have enough of a free enterprise approach. Most fire departments are fighting and preventing fires the same way it was done 50 years ago. Most firemen spend at least 40 percent of their time sitting on their tailbones, waiting for a fire. At today's costs, today's taxpayers can't afford a man who waits to serve—firemen in most departments have got to face up to working for a living."
Naturally, such thoughts have not endeared Witzeman to the fire unions—or to the traditionalist fire chiefs, either. Twice in the early 1970's the fire establishment sent delegations to Scottsdale to do exposes of Rural/Metro. Their flimsy, inaccurate reports are trotted out by the unions any time a city manager considers adopting the "Scottsdale Plan." Undaunted, Witzeman has responded with a slick, illustrated, point-by-point refutation, entitled Everything You Wanted to Know About the Scottsdale Fire Department But Were Afraid to Ask.
After many years as a pariah, Witzeman is now in great demand as a consultant, with clients ranging from city managers beleaguered by rising protests over the soaring costs of public services to a group of 40 fire chiefs in rural Tennessee, whose counties chipped in to pay his way to give a weekend seminar on how to construct their own fire trucks (as Rural/Metro does, at up to 50 percent savings). Requests for information are so frequent that the company has taken to sending out form letters, and Witzeman has continued to increase his consulting fee in hopes of reducing the demands on his time—to little avail. All of which is eloquent testimonial to a man who believes strongly in "creeping capitalism" as the key to saving our cities.
Witzeman's success in the fire business has not gone unnoticed. A number of major corporations have offered to buy him out, but Witzeman, who takes great personal pride in the business he has created and still personally directs, has refused. "You've got more money," he told one corporate representative, "but we've got more guts." That remark typifies the spirit of Lou Witzeman—capitalist, entrepreneur, firefighter.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Louis A. Witzeman".