Privatization

At What Price Is Saving a House, When the Savior Might Break the No-Siren Rule?

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The L.A. Times has a story out about fire prevention and firefighting efforts paid for by private insurance plan, with the following subhead:

Some residents whose homes were saved in the recent blazes thank response teams dispatched by their insurers. But public firefighters express uncertainty about the private sector.

Juicy conflict! Let's hear why firefighters paid by the state feel uncertain about those paid by insurance companies and homeowners who live in fire zones:

Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow said the companies can be a valuable resource, but they tend to exaggerate the number of homes they save and sometimes get in the way.

On a more philosophical level, he questions the social benefit of for-profit firms providing services only for some.

"When firefighters battle flames," he said of public crews, "they don't make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home."

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper, who is vice chairman of Firescope, a statewide panel that makes recommendations on firefighting policy, believes there is a place for private contractors. But their best use, he said, is early in the fire season when they visit homes and suggest ways to reduce fire risks.

"We have found some very reputable contractors and others that are less than reputable," Roper said. "It's a hazard if they block an access point or if we end up having to rescue them."

Roper said he's seen private trucks using flashing red lights and sirens, violating laws that allow such devices only on public emergency response vehicles.

The problem with private crews, Roper said, is that they are largely unregulated.

To briefly sum up: Private firefighters….
1) "tend to exaggerate"
2) "sometimes get in the way" (no examples cited)
3) work first to protect homes that pay for their services
4) are sometimes "less than reputable" (no examples cited)
5) could conceivably "block an access point" or require rescue (no examples cited because it's a hypothetical)
6) sometimes break the no-siren/lights rule, with adverse consquences we can only guess at
7) are "largely unregulated"

Which is not exactly the level of hysteria brought to the subject during the last fire season by liberal stalwarts Rick Perlstein, Naomi Klein, and Chris Hayes…but it's a pretty thin complaint nonetheless, considering that California has, and always will have, more fire than firefighters each and every October and November.

What's great, too, is that the lead anecdote in the story doesn't actually talk about private firefighters at all, but rather how one house was saved because the owner's $10,000-plus premium coverage included squirting the perimeter of his compound with (commercially available!) fire retardant.

My reason rant against the burn-the-rich set is here.


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  1. “When firefighters battle flames,” he said of public crews, “they don’t make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home.”

    Just like cops do, right?
    Who believes this?

  2. Whiners.

    Is paying for private security for home also unfair to my neighbors and annoying to police?

    “When firefighters battle flames,” he said of public crews, “they don’t make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home.”

    Thus the adjective public. Who would expect that when I pay for a service for my property, the sesrvice is performed for/on my property?

  3. “When firefighters battle flames,” he said of public crews, “they don’t make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home.”

    The public sector unable to value assets and appropriately prioritize? Sounds like he’s against the bailout!

  4. Burn, baby, burn — Disco Inferno

  5. “When firefighters battle flames,” he said of public crews, “they don’t make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home.”

    A bug, not a feature.

  6. Don’t private firefighters free up the public firefighters for those who cannot afford the private ones? Is this not an indirect benefit for those not paying for private firefighters?

    Oh noes! Free riders!

  7. For shame, LA Times! You can rejoin the ranks of respected media outlets like Reason when you promise to never, ever hype a story again. And be sure to only publish articles of substance, damn you! What do you think this is? Some kind of ratings game?

  8. Is there any way in hell more houses would be saved if the private companies were banned or regulated? Any at all? Because if not, these assholes are arguing for less houses to be saved overall, just to remove any threat of competition, and the paper just lets them get away with that.

  9. “When firefighters battle flames,” he said of public crews, “they don’t make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home.”

    All the more reason for someone with a “$50-million Oprah mansion” to be able to pay for extra protection.

    The petroleum refineries in town use a private fire department because the refineries are a higher risk and the private department is located near the refineries and they are specially trained to deal with chemical fires.

    I don’t see much difference here… if a wealthy homeowner chooses to build a home in an area prone to wildfires, it’s advantageous to the general public that they pay for added fire protection.

  10. “they don’t make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home.”

    I didn’t realize that Oprah’s mansion had burned up in this fire, along with all those tract homes.

  11. The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire

  12. In fairness, Matt, it is a little cheap to call them out for not citing examples in a one-sentence quote. For all we know the fire chief gave examples and they just weren’t included in the article.

    And it’s not hard to imagine how private fire companies could get in the way and require rescue. I’ve never stuck an umbrella up my ass, so it’s purely hypothetical to say that problems could result from doing so. But you’ll understand why I avoid it nonetheless.

  13. And it’s not hard to imagine how private fire companies could get in the way and require rescue. I’ve never stuck an umbrella up my ass, so it’s purely hypothetical to say that problems could result from doing so. But you’ll understand why I avoid it nonetheless.

    What are you getting at? If we’re imagining things, then its not hard to imagine how public fire departments could get in the way and require rescue.

  14. And it’s not hard to imagine how private fire companies could get in the way and require rescue.

    And it’s not hard to imagine how private fire companies could provide the kind of assistance that untrained amateurs would be unable to do.

  15. 911 OPERATOR: “Oprah’s house is on fire, Chief! She says she’s a patriot who refuses to buy fire insurance because that just benefits the rich and promotes the growth of two tiers in society.

    “And this just in, the house of Joe Schmoe, the town drunk, is on fire, too.”

    CHIEF: “A patriot’s house is in danger! Come on Oprah, we’re on the way! Thank God we don’t live in some kind of two-tiered social system, and thank God there isn’t any private fire company to save Oprah’s house, steal our glory, and force us to focus our attention on Schmoe!”

  16. “When firefighters battle flames,” he said of public crews, “they don’t make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home.”

    And it’s likely that the contracted guys don’t either. They go, I’m sure, where the insurers send them and do the job they’re paid to do whether the house is $50M and Oprah’s or the regular Joe’s $500K box. (You still only get a run down box for that kind of dough on the left coast right?)

  17. Skipping directly to the end, he submits:

    8) They aren’t members of the union!

  18. Private fire companies might also have a greater incentive to make sure that there was actually water pressure to the fire hydrants in Yorba Linda, or to find creative solutions to the problem while the Orange County Fire Authority was busy hosting their 1,024th elementary school tour group of the week.

  19. This Messiah (or Saviour) that Republicans speak of is the One I voted for.

    After all, the GOP has a hotline to God I hear.

  20. prolefeed-

    Please tell me you’re joking. I’d like to think that when the fires are burning the first priorities will be rescuing people (irrespective of the prices of their homes) and containing the spread of the fire.

  21. Mad Max: I laughed my ass off. Well done.

  22. I’ve heard rumors that some cities have asked their public fire fighters to not try and save structures when they respond to certain blocks. This is to further along revitalization plans. Not too far fetched if it’s true.

  23. Implicit in the public sector fire fighters point of view is that working for the State automatically bestows expertise and competence.

    There is no logical reason why firefighters who work for the State are necessarily superior in all cases to private ones, but this man seems to accept this as an axiom.

  24. If the private firefighters were any good, they’d be public firefighters so they could be in a union, retire at 55 with 90% pay, and polish those sweet poles in their spare time. Res ipse loquiter.

  25. If only the LA Times were as concerned about Yorba Linda building a nine million dollar headquarters instead of the planned nine million dollar reservoir that would have provided sufficient water pressure and volume to fight the fires.

    You know how public agencies are superior to private.

    Drove through there on my way to the big city this morning. Hard to believe the fire could jump 10 lanes of concrete.

  26. “My reason rant against the burn-the-rich set is here.”

    Hey — it’s neat to see that you used to be a libertarian, Matt.

  27. a $50-million Oprah mansion

    The word is “palace.” Oprah lives in a palace.
    J.P. Morgan lived in a mansion.

  28. I always thought Oprah’s house was protected from fire by the tears of her loving fans.

  29. Seriously, what sense does it make to let a $50MM asset be destroyed in order to save a $100K asset? When they have to choose, public firefighters should choose to save as much as they can, which in this case would be Oprah’s palace, not Joe Schmoe’s cheaply replaced tract house.

  30. Not to mention a whole neighborhood of mobile homes. Which did indeed burn to oblivion.

  31. Seriously, what sense does it make to let a $50MM asset be destroyed in order to save a $100K asset? When they have to choose, public firefighters should choose to save as much as they can, which in this case would be Oprah’s palace, not Joe Schmoe’s cheaply replaced tract house.

    My guess would be that a $50 MM asset isn’t as close to other houses and a fire there will spread less quickly to other assets than a $100K one would. It’s not like you see rows of $50M dollar houses, while rows of $100K houses are far more common. Once you factor in lives, going after the $100K could very likely make a lot more sense.

    Besides, the lion’s share of a home’s value is, usually, on the land, which is still there after a fire, not the structure.

  32. Once you factor in lives, going after the $100K could very likely make a lot more sense.

    Good point. Still, that palace probably has at least a half-dozen staff living there.

    Besides, the lion’s share of a home’s value is, usually, on the land, which is still there after a fire, not the structure.

    Another good point. Still, have you seen the hideously gargantuan structures these people live in?

  33. that palace probably has at least a half-dozen staff living there

    More like three dozen. And for the record, they’re called serfs.

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