Blazing Battles

Two New England towns tried to hire private fire-protection firms last year, and the ensuing political fights are still smoldering.


Fire fighters' unions have been busy in New England trying to put out privatization brush fires. In the past year, city councils in Willimantic, Connecticut, and Dover, New Hampshire, have attempted to reduce costs by turning their fire departments over to private contractors. The unions worry that this apparent threat to their members' job security could spread rapidly, leaping across state boundaries. And they could be right.

The news from New England is mixed. When Dover's city council voted 5 to 3 in June to contract out fire protection, it was the first community in the Northeast—and the first city anywhere with a unionized fire department—to go the contract route. But Dover's union is still fighting, and in Willimantic, Connecticut, privatization was successfully doused by the union earlier in the year.

I've followed these battles for 16 months. While the two cases show why local governments may indeed increasingly turn to private fire protection, they also display the heat that city officials are likely to face when this proven means of cost cutting is proposed.

Willimantic's hotly contested vote on privatization grew out of a concatenation of people and events. In 1982, confronted with rising costs and limited revenues, city officials got together with the Institute of Public Service at the University of Connecticut. The result was a report setting forth city goals for the 1982–92 period. In the "Law and Safety" section of the report was an item suggesting that the city explore lower-cost alternatives to the traditional way of providing for public safety.

This suggestion did not fall on deaf ears. Willimantic's city manager was one Paul Shew. In the same position in Milford, Ohio, in the 1970s, he had gotten to know the city manager of nearby Cincinnati, who had been the city manager of Scottsdale, Arizona, for many years. And that city of 95,000 has contracted out its fire service ever since it incorporated as a city in 1952.

What Shew was looking at in Willimantic was a $900,000-a-year fire department that accounted for nearly 25 percent of the city's proposed 1983 budget of $3.76 million—and a fire fighters' union that wouldn't budge in contract negotiations. With 15,000 citizens, Willimantic was paying a relatively high price for fire protection—$60 per capita, or about $180 per household. (As a point of reference, private subscription fire services typically charge $30–$50 per household.)

So Shew began looking into the state of the art of private fire protection as of 1982. The more he looked, the more enthusiastic he became. "Quality was a prime concern," he told me, and he became convinced that contracted services offered a quality alternative to the city's high-cost fire department.

In early 1982, Willimantic's city council announced that it was interested in receiving bids for fire service. Three companies responded: American Emergency Services Corp. of Wheaton, Illinois; Rural/Metro Fire Department, Inc., of Scottsdale, Arizona; and Wackenhut Services, Inc., of Coral Gables, Florida. After reviewing the three proposals, the council decided to hear more from Wackenhut.

The Florida-based company had just recently entered the municipal fire business when it won its first contract, with Hall County, Georgia—a 75,000-person, 400-square-mile suburban and rural area—in January 1982. But Wackenhut was no stranger to fire fighting. In 1967 it was awarded a contract to provide fire and security services for the Johnson Space Center. At various times it has held fire and security contracts at seven NASA installations (including the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral), the Energy Department's Nevada Test Site, the Alaska pipeline, and 12 Saudi Arabian airports. In 1983 the firm began providing fire protection at two domestic, civilian airports. Worldwide, the company employs 11,700 people and does $200 million worth of business per year.

Wackenhut offered financially strapped Willimantic an attractive proposal. Under a five-year contract, said the firm, it could save the city $1.4 million by economizing on personnel. It would restore a 56-hour work week rather than the existing 42-hour week and would replace four six-man platoons with three seven-man platoons. In addition, the company would begin using paid reservists to provide supplementary manpower, saving a bundle in overtime costs.

The fire fighters' union was bitterly opposed, especially to going back to a 56-hour work week, which they had last worked in 1969. Local 1033 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) denounced the request for bids, calling the city's action "nothing but union-busting." If a private company were allowed to take over fire protection in Willimantic, charged local IAFF President John Griffin, private fire protection could, "like a cancer, spread all the way through the state of Connecticut."

The union went into action, first trying to extinguish the threat at the local level. There the union pinned its hopes on a December 1982 referendum on consolidation of Willimantic with the surrounding township of Windham. Consolidation would mean the election of a new city government—one the union hoped would be less favorable to contracting out fire services. In addition, the job of city manager would be abolished, getting Shew out of the way. So the union added its voice and funds to the pro-consolidation campaign.

The controversial measure passed in December 1982. But the fire fighters' battle wasn't over. Consolidation wouldn't take effect for six months, and in the meantime the existing city council had to vote on the fire contract. The union turned its attention to delaying a decision.

The night of reckoning was February 2, 1983. A year had passed since the council had called for bids, and now it was set to vote on the issue. That night, fire fighters packed city hall with about 100 supporters, well in excess of its legal capacity of 75. When the meeting was called to order, Deputy Fire Marshal Joseph Beaulieu announced that the hall was overcrowded. The meeting would have to close down, he said, or be moved elsewhere, because fire regulations were being violated.

Mayor John Lescoe asked Beaulieu to remove 25 people, which elicited loud protests from the crowd. When the marshal again demanded that the meeting be closed or moved, Lescoe announced an adjournment while everyone moved to another site. City Manager Shew told me later that he can't remember any other time when the fire department was so concerned about overcrowding.

Meanwhile, outside city hall someone had slashed the tires of the rental car used by Wackenhut representatives, who were at the meeting to press the case for their proposed contract. Shew got them to the new meeting site in another vehicle—prompting Raymond Shea, president of the state IAFF union, to declare to the assembled crowd that the private company didn't have the "guts" to enter either a burning building or a vandalized car.

But the real trump card used by the IAFF's Shea at the meeting involved an alternative proposal he claimed had been submitted by the union. Council members said they had never seen any such proposal, and Shea charged that city negotiators were keeping it from them. But the union's offer was "competitive" with the one from Wackenhut, he promised.

City Manager Paul Shew, himself one of the city negotiators, said the union had never come forth with an alternative. But Shea's accusations swayed the council, which postponed its vote. A week later the city council again agreed to remove the issue from its agenda at the request of the union. This time Shea asked for the additional time so that the union could prepare the proposal that he previously claimed had already been submitted.

With action at the city level safely on hold, the union regrouped and mounted an offensive in the state legislature. First, a bill to regulate private fire services was introduced by state representative Andrew Carey (D–Windham). Then, after testimony from the fire fighters' union, volunteer fire fighters, and state regulators, the bill was amended to ban private fire services altogether. (A similar measure had been enacted in Massachusetts in 1980 after union lobbying.)

Curious to learn Carey's motivations, I called him up. "My primary concern is the level of service, which private companies can't meet," he told me. How did he know that? I inquired. Carey admitted that all he had read was Wackenhut's proposal for Willimantic. All he seemed to know about the private fire industry (see sidebar, p. 43) was that "Rural/Metro is out in Arizona or someplace."

When questioned, he admitted that the ban would preempt cities' right to decide what type of services to use. But this is necessary, he said, because opting for private services "is a union-busting tactic."

I pressed him further on the alleged inferior quality of private fire services. Carey said his information came from the Willimantic city council, but in the same breath he added that "damn little information has been given." Yet he was willing to sponsor legislation forbidding private fire protection on the basis of this "damn little" information. When I challenged him on this point, Carey intimated that I was on the take of some private fire company. "I think someone's paying you," he charged.

Carey's bill, however, never got out of committee. In April 1983, stymied in the legislature, the union rejoined the battle at the local level, offering a new union contract with concessions on overtime pay and fire-engine manning. The proposed five-year contract would save the city's taxpayers an estimated $340,000—compared with Wackenhut's $1.4 million in savings. After some debate, the city council voted 4 to 3 to accept the union's offer.

According to council member Gail Zaicek, who voted against the union's offer, the majority of the council actually favored contracting out fire services. But the common knowledge that the fire fighters would have called successfully for a referendum on the issue—which the city might lose—had a strong deterrent effect. "If the fire fighters were successful in the referendum, it would severely damage the concessions [the union had otherwise agreed to]," council member Rita Cantor told the local newspapers. And so the city settled on a sure $340,000 rather than pushing for $1.4 million.

The battle over privatizing fire services in Dover, New Hampshire (pop. 22,375), was in many respects a replay of what took place in Willimantic—but with some interesting twists. To begin with, the idea of contracting out fire protection in Dover cropped up within the fire department itself in the person of Capt. Sanford Salava, president of the Dover Professional Fire Officers' Association. (In Dover there are two unions, one for officers and the other, an IAFF local, for regular fire fighters.)

In February 1982, Salava approached the city with a proposal to start a private fire firm and contract with the city. He was turned down after failing to raise a $200,000 performance bond. But City Manager Robert Steele was intrigued.

Steele had already made Dover a leader in contracting out. He took the job in 1978, and since then Dover has contracted with private firms for custodial services, garbage collection, and some snow hauling, data processing, and heavy equipment work.

Several months after looking into Captain Salava's proposal, Steele saw an ad for Wackenhut's fire-protection services and got in touch with the firm. In May 1982, the council asked Steele to look into contracting out both fire and police services. Steele, the mayor, two council members, and the city's finance director all attended a National League of Cities seminar on contracting out in July. A few weeks later, having heard about Willimantic's efforts to obtain bids, Steele got in touch with Paul Shew and other Willimantic officials.

As things progressed, Dover's fire chief, David Bibber, decided to check out this privatization business. He was skeptical at first. "I said I would look into it," he recalled when I interviewed him, "but I didn't think it would work." Bibber called all the areas of the country that he knew of where there had been some experience with contracted fire service, talking to city officials and to the fire chiefs of neighboring municipal departments.

"After I started researching it, I found it was a viable alternative for the city," Bibber told me. "I did everything I could do to chip it apart," he confessed; but the more he investigated, the more he grew convinced that private contracting makes sense. "We're a monopoly," he said, referring to municipal fire services, "and something has to be done" to cut costs. He figured that introducing competition via contracting would go a long way to bring cost-consciousness to fire services.

When Dover went out to bid, it received two serious proposals—one from Fire Suppression Management Consultants in Georgia and the other from Wackenhut. As in Willimantic, the Wackenhut bid was judged the more responsive and became the basis for consideration. The company proposed changes in staffing and working hours similar to those laid out for Willimantic—again, restoring the 56-hour work week abandoned by the Dover department in 1977. Only 6 of the 36 fire-fighter positions would be eliminated; the wages of those remaining, all of whom would be offered jobs with Wackenhut, would be increased by an average of $2,000 each. The net savings over the three-year contract would be $350,000.

This time the International Association of Fire Fighters began its battle in the state legislature. In January 1983, John Wallace (D–Manchester) introduced a bill to ban private fire services from the state. "I'm totally opposed to the wholesaling of protective services," Wallace announced as he filed the bill. "My main concern is the safety of the citizens of New Hampshire. I'd like to stop this before there is any major tragedy."

Local officials from Dover protested this attempt to deny the city's right to decide how the town should be managed. The Wallace bill was quickly defeated, but another was introduced in its place. James Demers, a Democratic representative from Dover, introduced a bill requiring that private fire companies be certified by the state fire marshal. The bill would not affect municipal fire departments, which would be allowed to operate without certification. "That bill is aimed right at Dover," charged an irate Mayor Raymond Hennessey, protesting that "it's asinine to think the city would hire fire fighters that can't put out fires."

But the Demers bill passed handily in the New Hampshire legislature and was signed into law on May 18. Wackenhut Business Manager George Zoley was not especially troubled by the law, believing that the company would have no trouble passing any certification requirements. What concerned him were the weapons that union representatives in Dover were using to defend their position.

At the first public hearing on fire-service privatization in Dover, Dustin Alward, the IAFF regional vice-president brought in from Massachusetts, assured the city council, "I, like you, subscribe to a free-enterprise system." But Alward and other union officials proceeded to launch an attack on profits and free enterprise. "If government has $300,000 to spend, you would get $300,000 worth of service," claimed Alward. "If the private sector has $300,000 to spend, you get $225,000 worth of service and $75,000 worth of profit."

But Alward's charges were mild compared with those leveled by other IAFF officials. John Cannon, vice-president of the local, declared that the profit system has always led to a lack of concern for people. "History has proven that when profit is considered, safety takes a back seat." And local President Doug Conway insisted that "you can't make a profit and protect private property at the same time." If profits were not high enough, he insinuated, Wackenhut would simply let a few buildings burn: "If profit isn't high enough, the people of Dover will suffer."

Soon, the local paper was carrying union advertisements asking citizens, "Should the City Gamble with Your Life and Property?" "DON'T PERMIT A PRIVATE FIRE SERVICE INTO DOVER," urged the ads. Picketers at city hall carried signs reading, "Don't Let Wackenhut Burn You."

Amazingly, the union also raised the specter of privately employed fire fighters going on strike, something forbidden by state law to municipal fire fighters. What the IAFF did not mention is the extent to which such laws have been ignored by its own members.

In Yonkers, New York, in 1981, union members illegally walked off the job—and weren't content with just striking. According to reports in the New York Times, IAFF members physically harassed volunteers who attempted to put out fires, and false alarms increased dramatically, as did arson.

In August 1977, striking IAFF fire fighters in Dayton, Ohio, stood by while 22 fires either burned out or were fought by residents or out-of-town fire fighters. The strike occurred in violation of a state law that bans strikes by public employees and in defiance of a temporary restraining order. As a condition of ending their strike, the union members were given amnesty along with pay increases.

Several weeks earlier, IAFF members in University City, a St. Louis suburb, had gone on strike. Fellow union members from the St. Louis city and county fire departments refused to answer calls from University City, and five of them were arrested as they tried to stop vehicles from entering the suburb.

Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an average of 12 fire-fighter strikes per year in the 1975–80 period. (Due to budget cutbacks, the BLS does not have data for 1981 or 1982.)

Union members in Dover also claimed that the city would be less protected because neighboring fire departments would refuse to honor existing "mutual aid" agreements with the city in the event of a large fire or multiple fires requiring extra units. But again the insinuations made by the fire fighters proved false. Chief George Gorman of the Community Mutual Aid Association, made up of 10 area fire departments, said there would be no change in the mutual aid pact "unless Dover would like us to do that." He did say the present agreement would need to be renegotiated but that the process could be as easy as changing "Dover" to "Wackenhut" in the existing agreement. Gorman also addressed the strike issue, saying mutual-aid fire fighters would come to Dover's aid if employees of Wackenhut were to strike.

With their credibility fast eroding as the council vote on Wackenhut's proposal neared, the fire fighters made their final move. Union President Doug Conway told the council: "It is the unanimous decision of Local 1312 that we would not work for a profit-making company. We are concerned with life and property. We have no interest in working with a company working to make a profit, with no interest in life and property." The council was told that the officers' association had also agreed, to a man, not to work for Wackenhut.

But these threats had an unexpected effect on most council members. Several members felt that the union was trying to hold the city hostage and progressively grew more angry at the tactics employed by the local. On June 22 the Dover City Council voted 5 to 3 to approve the contract with Wackenhut, with service scheduled to begin August 1.

The unions immediately began legal maneuvering to prevent the changeover. The local IAFF and the Officers' Association filed lawsuits on June 24 claiming that contracted services were illegal and requesting an injunction to stop the city from proceeding. The request was denied in county superior court. Another suit contended that fire protection is a "police power" that cannot be delegated to a private company. This time, the decision of the superior court was to refer the matter to the state supreme court and to grant the fire fighters' request for a temporary restraining order until the case is settled.

Chief Bibber, City Manager Steele, and Wackenhut representative George Zoley are all confident that the city can win before the supreme court. "If we didn't think we could win," said Zoley, "we wouldn't have started this a year ago." Attorneys for Wackenhut and the city approved the legality of the contract before it was voted on, and it is unlikely the state legislature would have passed the certification bill if contract fire services are illegal.

But Zoley and Bibber both told me of their suspicion that the union is not really trying to win the lawsuit. The true motive, they believe, is to stall the implementation of the contract. Under the contract, the city has a 90-day trial period in which to cancel the agreement. If the contract had gone into effect as scheduled, the 90-day period would have ended on November 1, just a few days before municipal elections. But if the contract start-up is delayed until after an expected mid-September court ruling, the 90-day trial period will expire after a new council is elected and possibly after the new members are in office.

Chief Bibber believes that the International Association of Fire Fighters "has given the local a blank check." IAFF Regional vice-president Dustin Alward has been making regular trips to Dover. A full-time political organizer named Michael Lass has arrived on the scene. An anticontract group, "Voters Interested in Public Service," has announced a petition drive for a referendum to amend the city charter to forbid contracting out police and fire services. It is headquartered in a building owned by the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—like the IAFF, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. And the announced candidate opposing one of the incumbents is the brother of a fire fighter.

The council majority who voted for contract fire service knew what they were doing and the possible ramifications. Geraldine Sylvester stated, just before the vote, "If I never sit here again, I will have voted in good conscience and done what I think is right." Even those on the other side acknowledged the merits of the case. Councilor Robert Whiting stated flatly, "I firmly believe contracted services to be the services of the future." But Whiting voted no, because of the union's campaign. So did Richard York, who honestly conceded that he didn't want to lose his job. "I've been on the council for four years and enjoyed it," he explained.

Clearly, the stakes are high in Dover. The fire service has long been insulated from public scrutiny, because it's been a government monopoly and because people are understandably afraid of fires—and so tend to believe fire fighters' claims about what is necessary. As a result, the fire service has grown extremely conservative, tradition-bound, and costly.

Chief Bibber summed up this conservatism for the New Hampshire Times: "I can understand the feelings of the firefighters. The fire service is as traditional as apple pie and motherhood. When the internal combustion engine was about to replace the horse-drawn buggy, firefighters opposed it. When air tires replaced hard tires, firefighters opposed it. When closed pumps replaced open pumps, firefighters opposed it. And since diesel engines began replacing regular gasoline, there still are departments that oppose it." But Bibber has become convinced that the facts are on the side of private fire protection.

Another chief on whom the battle has made a deep impression is Charles Monzillo of Willimantic. Addressing a regional convention of fire chiefs in Hyannis, Massachusetts, at the end of June, Monzillo warned the chiefs that private fire departments could become as common as private garbage-collection firms unless municipal fire departments figure out how to cut costs. "These are reputable concerns who claim they can give the same or better level of services than communities now have, at less cost," he said. Private contractors can take over any type of fire department, he acknowledged, and "they can run it for less money."

As for little Dover, New Hampshire, whose council had approved the Wackenhut contract just a week before, Monzillo summed it up aptly: "Dover is the key to what is going to happen in the rest of New England and maybe the whole United States."

Jim Peron is a journalism student and the director of the Connecticut Institute, a nonprofit research organization.


Private, for-profit companies providing fire protection date back to at least 1948 when Rural/Metro Fire Department, Inc., was founded in Scottsdale, Arizona. Today, the Directory of Private Service Providers put together by the Reason Foundation's Local Government Center lists 13 such companies, operating in 10 states. Rural/Metro is still the largest, serving some 15 communities in Arizona and Tennessee. Coming up fast is Wackenhut Services, Inc., a division of the Florida-based $200-million-a-year security firm, Wackenhut Corporation. Some of the firms go back 10 to 20 years, while others have come into being since the tax revolt kicked off by California's Proposition 13 in 1978.

The private fire companies operate in two different modes. Some, generally in rural or suburban areas, operate by subscription—individual property owners voluntarily decide whether or not to sign up for an annual subscription, typically at $30–$50 per house. A subscription provides full access to the company's services on demand, with no further out-of-pocket charge (much like the emergency road service offered by various auto clubs). The companies also respond to nonsubscribers' fires, then charge them by the hour for each fire fighter and piece of equipment used. In most areas where subscription fire service is offered, most households readily sign up, generally saving money on fire insurance premiums by doing so.

The other mode of private fire protection is called contracting out. More common in urban areas, it involves the local government selecting a company to provide fire protection for a specific period of time (generally, from one to five years). Payment is made monthly by the city to the company, in accordance with the price specified in the contract. Thus, although the provider is a private company, the payment comes from tax money under the contracting option.

A trade association, the Private Sector Fire Association, was formed in January 1982. Since that time, dozens of city governments have requested information, and a number have gone as far as requesting bids from several companies. Today, it is quite feasible for a city of up to 150,000 to seek and receive bids from three or four qualified private fire-protection firms.

—Robert Poole, Jr.