November 20, 2007
California Wildfires and Right-Wing Smoke.
Some principles and practices in our political order are
settled, once and for all. They are simply beyond rational dispute. No
one is arguing for a hereditary monarch, with a “divine right” to rule
over us. No one seriously supports the reinstatement of chattel slavery.
No one believes that homosexuals, Sabbath workers and disobedient
children should be stoned to death. (Well, almost no one – there are,
after all, a few “Christian Dominionists” still at large).
And almost no one has questioned the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin’s
establishment in Philadelphia in 1736, of the first municipal fire
department in colonial America.
Not until now.
Before fire-fighting became the business of local and state governments,
fire-fighters were employed by insurance companies. Plaques placed on
the front of homes and businesses identified the companies that
underwrote the properties. If a fire alarm was answered by a cadre of
fire-fighters from the “wrong” company, that was just tough luck. “Burn,
baby, burn!” Many structures were lost while competing companies tried
to sort out which was authorized to put out the fire.
Many more adjoining structures were consumed by fires that were
oblivious to property lines.
Fires, as it happens, are not reducible to individual incidents
affecting particular structures. They are public threats to communities
at large. Accordingly, the task of fighting fires is appropriately
assigned to municipal agencies, managed and financed by the community,
which means, of course by the government. (See my
“Privatization and Public Goods”).
Two hundred and seventy-one years of uncontested validation of this
simple truth does not faze the libertarians and the regressives
(self-described “conservatives”). Some of them are now proposing a giant step
backward to privatized fire fighting. As
reports in The Nation:
Just look at what is happening in Southern
California. Even as wildfires devoured whole swaths of the region,
some homes in the heart of the inferno were left intact, as if saved
by a higher power. But it wasn't the hand of God; in several cases
it was the handiwork of Firebreak Spray Systems. Firebreak is a
special service offered to customers of insurance giant American
International Group (AIG)--but only if they happen to live in the
wealthiest ZIP codes in the country. Members of the company's
Private Client Group pay an average of $19,000 to have their homes
sprayed with fire retardant. During the wildfires, the "mobile
units"--racing around in red firetrucks--even extinguished fires for
One customer described a scene of modern-day Revelation. "Just
picture it. Here you are in that raging wildfire. Smoke everywhere.
Flames everywhere. Plumes of smoke coming up over the hills," he
told the Los Angeles Times. "Here's a couple guys showing up in what
looks like a firetruck who are experts trained in fighting wildfire
and they're there specifically to protect your home."
And your home alone. "There were a few instances," one of the
private firefighters told Bloomberg News, "where we were spraying
and the neighbor's house went up like a candle." With public fire
departments cut to the bone, gone are the days of Rapid Response,
when everyone was entitled to equal protection.
Privatized fire fighting? It was a lousy idea in Ben
Franklin’s time, and it is lousy idea today.
This is why:
Privatized fire fighting is inefficient. Several separate
and uncoordinated fire crews struggling to save separate individual
homes are far less efficient than a large, integrated and strategically
organized “army” of fire-fighters. Add up the costs of manpower,
equipment and losses to the fires, and the latter, coordinated, effort
will always win, hands down. This will be so, even if every structure in
the area is “protected” by one or another private company of
“responders.” Imagine, for example, a street in which a line of houses
is insured and protected, sequentially from left to right, by the fire
crews of Acme, Inc., Gecko, Inc., Good Hands, Inc., Acme, Inc., Gecko,
Inc., Good Hands, Inc. – then add a few more companies, in random order,
as you continue down the street. See what I mean? It’s far less
expensive and more efficient if one agency is protecting the
neighborhood as a unit. But more significantly, this example
Privatized fire fighting is ineffective. The approach
described above – several independent companies protecting individual
homes, randomly situated – is comparable to opposing an invading army
with individual local police and sheriff departments. An invading army
attacking with an integrated force and battle plan can only be defeated
by an opposing army with a superior integrated force and battle plan.
Supply lines, effective use of available equipment, deployment of
personnel, geographical contingencies, must all be taken into account by
the opposing generals as they plan attacks, defenses and
counter-attacks. Indefensible lands must be yielded and their
populations abandoned so that forces might regroup on defensible
terrain. Command decisions must be communicated intact through the
company commanders to the individual soldiers. Decisive advantage is
enjoyed by the side with the accurate “Big Picture” of the entire
battle, a “picture” that changes as the battle evolves.
Similarly, the massive wildfires that ravaged southern California in
October and November, 2003, and again last month, had to be responded to
strategically – with a consideration of available resources, of terrain,
and of priorities. “The Big Picture.” Thus a dozen homes, located beyond
a defensible fire line (a road or a stream), might have to be sacrificed
so that several hundred might be saved. Structures close to water
sources and to open roads have higher priority than other structures
that are isolated and offer poor means of escape for the fire fighters.
The wealth or the insurance arrangements of the respective owners are
irrelevant to the strategic planning of the fire fighters.
Community pre-planning and preparation are also essential to disaster
management. For example, last month, in the “Grass Valley” fire near my
home, the mansions of the "have mores" at Lake Arrowhead were protected by the
removal of a million and a half dead and diseased trees by order of the “big
government” U.S. Forest Service, and by the local government requirement
that flammable brush be removed from the modest homes of the
“proletariat.” Cooperative community action combined with a large-scale
coordinated response by professional fire-fighters saved the day, as the
fire was contained to 1200 acres and the loss of about two hundred out
of ten thousand homes.. (See
California Wildfires and Right Wing Smoke”).
In contrast, a private fire crew, “contracted” to save this particular
house at 1234 My Castle Circle (not 1232 and not 1236), has no “big
picture” in mind. The total concern of the crew is this house, and this
Clearly, it’s a helluva way to fight a fire.
Privatized fire fighting is immoral. The determined
regressive might reply that the neighborhood could avoid the “this house
but not that house” problem by agreeing to hire a single private fire
fighting company. (However, there would remain the “this neighborhood
but not that neighborhood” problem. But let that pass). All members of
the neighborhood would then be required to pay a fee to the company –
“required,” because those who might otherwise not pay would nonetheless
be at least partially protected by the fee-payers, i.e., they would be
“free riders.” Hence a "coercion" (and implied "theft of
property") detested by Ayn Rand and the libertarians.
But this scheme puts the “regressive” neighborhood perilously close to
installing a public fire department. What’s in a name? Call the
neighborhood a “town,” the fee “taxes,” and the fire company a “fire
department,” and what is the practical difference?
There is this difference: because of the high fees (due to the
inefficiency problem, above) the neighborhood described here would have
to be comprised of very wealthy home owners. And having paid exorbitant
fees for individual fire protection, they would not be inclined to pay
taxes to support city, county and state fire fighting agencies. In fact,
San Diego County was ill-prepared for the fires of last month, due to
successful tax-cutting proposals by anti-tax, anti-government
Accordingly, a privatization of fire protection, along with other
emergency management services, increases and solidifies the
stratification of society into the “have-nots” and “the
have-mores.” “I have mine – you’re on your own.” The community
then encompasses the neighborhood, but no more. Beyond the neighborhood
is another country. Gone is the civic friendship that binds a nation
together – the “equal justice under law,” the shared covenant enshrined
in the founding documents of the republic, the sense that the national
economy is a cooperative venture comprised of indispensable components:
workers, investors, managers, and government.
Instead, we have George Bush’s “ownership society,” wherein today
wealthiest one percent of the population owns more than the bottom
ninety percent., and that “ownership” of the oligarchs
“Facts on the Concentration of Wealth”). Included in
that one-percent of the country effectively “owned” by the “have-mores” are privatized
fire and other emergency services, the media, the courts, private
armies, the paperless touch-screen machines that count our votes and the
secret software that compiles election returns, and, finally, via
lobbyists and campaign contributions, the Congress of the United States.
This concentration of wealth and this privatization of essential public
services and government functions are both symptoms and causes of a
failing democracy and a disintegrating nation.
Our history, our laws, and our shared sense of justice all warn us of
It remains to be seen whether we the people of the United States, the
“proletariat” 90%, have the collective power and resolution to reverse
this slippery slide toward despotism.