News: Fire Sale

If the free market is good for hospitals, why not fire departments, too?

Sep 26, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Let's imagine that a few decades ago we privatized all fire departments and ran them like our health care system. After all, choice and competition have made American health care one of the best and most efficient systems in the world, right?

In this brave new firefighting system, there are no wasteful, tax-supported fire departments in every village, township and city. Instead of a government monopoly, you get to choose your own fire department by choosing your own coverage from private fire insurance companies.

The United States has some of the best firefighters and most advanced firefighting techniques in the world. But if you have a fire, you call the fire department associated with your fire insurance plan; it might — or might not — be close to your home. The fire department checks your insurance policy to make sure you're covered. If your policy doesn't include grease fires, for example, you're out of luck. Sometimes the insurance companies tell you later you're responsible for some or all of the cost of the fire, and you'll have to take time from work to argue with them on the phone.

Your level of coverage depends largely on your job and what quality of fire insurance your employer is willing to pay for.

Many lower-paying jobs offer no fire insurance at all. You can buy fire insurance outside work, but it's more expensive and less comprehensive than employee plans that benefit from group discounts.

If your home has suffered a fire before, your insurance company might not cover you. People living in homes that are more prone to fires — wood homes or buildings with old electrical systems — might not be able to get coverage.

Every American 65 years and older gets Firecare, a tax-supported program created in the 1960s, but recipients have to pay the first 20 percent of a fire's cost. Older, poorer Americans sometimes can't afford all the fire prevention they need, so some travel to Canada for cheaper fire extinguishers and other equipment.

The firefighting equipment and prevention industry — which sells smoke alarms, fire trucks, fire extinguishers, fire hoses and other devices — is the most profitable industry in the country. More and more Americans rely on this kind of equipment because homes from the post-World War II building boom are aging and need more care than newer homes.

Fire equipment gets more advanced and expensive every year. Some of the companies advertise their products on TV and in print.

Every county has a free fire department, but they're usually more crowded, slower and not eager to put out fires for free.

Fire departments are mostly non-profit organizations. Religious groups own some of them. Businesses pressure many fire departments to cut costs by closing fire stations or cutting staff. Fire insurance rates have increased at a double-digit pace each of the past three years.

Many firefighters are upset they can't fight fires the way they used to, because private fire insurance companies are keeping their costs down, sometimes forcing firefighters to leave while a fire is still smoldering or even burning. Sometimes insurance companies limit the amount of water or the size of hoses. Some upset residents have sued insurance companies and won millions of dollars in damages.

Forty-four million Americans don't have fire coverage. But most politicians say there's there's not enough money to provide coverage for everyone. Another 30 million Americans are under-insured. Poorer neighborhoods are therefore more likely to have fires, and many preventable fires destroy homes because the residents couldn't afford coverage. Sometimes the fires are contagious and spread next door.

Both the fire insurance and fire prevention industries spend millions of dollars on advertising and on contributions to Republicans and Democrats. Last year both houses of Congress passed separate versions of a residents' bill of rights, but they haven't been able to agree on how much to limit insurance companies' liability.

Studies show Americans spend about twice as much on firefighting and fire departments as other industrialized countries, all of which provide fire protection to all their citizens. ©