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Under Bush's watch, decay of public firefighting has spawned billion dollar private industry
Miriam Raftery
Published: Monday December 10, 2007

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Trade group founded in 2000 now represents 10,000 private firefighters

SAN DIEGO - After the Great Fire of London in 1666, insurance companies started issuing plaques to show private fire brigades which homes to save--and which to let burn. Insurers organized their own firefighting companies. Not having a plaque didn’t mean your home went totally ignored, but it certainly didn’t help.

Today, a decline in public funding for firefighting services has sparked explosive growth in the private sector. The world’s largest insurance company – American Insurance Group – now has “Wildfire Protection Units” in 150 US zip codes. During the 2007 California wildfires, AIG’s firefighters saved homes in wealthy areas, while less fortunate neighbors were left with rubble. A trade group for private firefighters founded in 2000 now represents 10,000 private firemen.

Rancho Bernardo, a wealthy San Diego community that lost 365 homes during the October fires, has just one fire station for a 24-mile area. The city fails to meet the minimum standards for accreditation recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, which requires a minimum of one station for every nine miles.

In a blistering interview earlier this month, San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the city was left on its own to fight the October wildfires—and was woefully unprepared, despite the fact that some richer homeowners had their own private army. With two fires blazing into Rancho Bernardo, Jarman called Cal Fire to request immediate air support and 150 strike teams from the state: 750 fire engines and 3,000 firefighters.

Cal Fire’s response? Nothing was available.

But while Cal Fire balked, AIG firefighter Sam Crays was saving homes for clients. `We love putting out fires,'' Crays told Bloomberg News, noting that his unit was able to extinguish a fire in a nearby uninsured home. But, he added, adjacent homeowners weren’t always so lucky. “There were a few instances where we were spraying and the neighbor's house went up like a candle.”

Last month, former San Diego fire chief Jeff Bowman told a Congressional hearing that he left his job in April 2006 over “abject frustration” because repeated recommendations went unheeded. He said he urged the County buy at least 50 fire engines, each staffed by at least 12 firefighters and add 22 fire stations.

“People have to understand that there will eventually be loss of life on a massive scale if nothing happens,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who convened the hearing on the Southern California fires. The senator described seeing “pockmarked” areas of burned neighborhoods in Rancho Bernardo, where “obviously the fire wasn’t fought,” yet a few houses remained oddly unscathed amid the rubble.

“It’s a terrible mistake to have to go to private firefighting,” the California Democrat told RAW STORY after the hearing. “I deeply believe that San Diego has to change the size of its fire resources.”

Private firefighters deployed in California wildfires

Firebreak Spray Systems Company, a private company headquartered in Oregon, treated about 200 homes in Rancho Bernando and other enclaves fortunate enough to afford premium insurance during the recent fires.

“We had eight trucks responding to fires there in Southern California,” Firebreak CEO Jim Aamodt said. The company’s private fire brigade sprayed homes with Phos-Chek, the same fire retardant chemical used in forest fires.

“None that we treated burned,” Aamodt added. “We identified 12 saves in which we were able to either put our fires, or they burned right up to the Phos-Chek line.”

The company offers pre-treatments and automated sprinkler applications to its clients, as well as dispatching trained wildlife firefighters to treat homes and brush during actual fires. Firebreak also offers concierge-style fire protection services for AIG policyholders during wildfires. AIG has also sent private firefighting teams to other richer areas in Sun Valley, Idaho, Malibu, California and Colorado resort communities.

“We are getting a tremendous amount of insurance interest now since this publicity hit,” Aamodt said.

Private firefighting spreads nationally

Fighting fires has become big business. The National Wildfire Suppression Association (NWSA), a trade organization founded in 2000, now represents over 200 private companies and 10,000 wild land firefighters. The private firefighting industry is estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

Some cities and counties are now hiring private contractors to replace public services provided by unionized firefighters. According to the Heartland Institute, a conservative pro-privatization think tank, Lakewood, Illinois has contracted with American Emergency Service Corporation to provide fire protection. The company’s employees are non-union; Heartland asserts that “wage and benefits costs are lower than those incurred by fire districts that hire their own firefighters and paramedics.”

Another private firefighting contractor, Rural/Metro, provides private fire protection services to over 25 communities, according to the company’s website. Other contractors offer specialties; Halliburton, for instance, focuses on dousing oil well fires. Other large companies with fire protection divisions include Kellogg, Brown, and Root and Spain-based Avialsa.

The U.S. government also uses private contractors to abet firefighting efforts on federal lands. The practice began during the Clinton administration in response to a decline in the logging industry and a shortage of lumberjack-firefighters to combat forest fires. Since 2000, the industry has mushroomed.

Not every marriage between private firefighting contractors and government entities is made in heaven. In Florida, the town of Estero hired Wackenhut Corp. to run its fire department. But after a private firefighter was killed, the Occupational Safety and Health Administrated cited the company for safety violations. As a result, Estero canceled the contract and resurrected its public fire department.

According to an audit report on Forest Service firefighting contract crews conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, private crews used in the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, insufficiently trained and inexperienced crews negatively impacted firefighting efforts.

“We had crew performance problems on the fire line. We also had issues of falsified training records,” Rod Nichols, information officer with the Oregon Department of Forestry, told RAW STORY. Some companies hired undocumented immigrants and sent non-English speaking crews out with supervisors who did not speak Spanish, he added.

“Since then, we believe we’ve overcome a lot of those problems,” Nichols said. He cited changes in procedures, discipline and dismissal of some offending companies and a reduction in private crews among the improvements made.

“In the past 10 years, wild-land firefighting has transformed from a federal government responsibility to a massive, extremely lucrative, private enterprise,” Slate Magazine wrote in a 2002 article sharply critical of the practice. “Privatizing firefighting was supposed to cut costs. But it has done nothing of the sort. Last summer, which was an "average" fire season, was the most costly on record.”

The 2001 fire season cost an average of $1,340 per acre to fight fires in national forests—270 percent more than it did in 2000, the magazine said.

The politics of private-firefighting

Some private firefighting firms or their owners have made hefty donations to the Republican Party and prominent elected officials. Mike Wheelock, owner of Greyback Forestry Inc. in Oregon, one of the largest and most elite private firefighting contractors with substantial federal contracts, gave a whopping $25,000 to the Republican National Congressional Committee in 2006, as well as large donations to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and other prominent GOP leaders.

Privatization of government services is a key plank promoted by prominent Republican leaders including conservative strategist Grover Norquist – the Washington maven famously quoted for his desire to shrink government to be small enough to “drown it in a bathtub.” In 2005, a media strategist for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s told campaign donors of a plan to promote a `phenomenon of anger’ aimed at turning California voters against firefighters and other public employee union members to help pass ballot initiatives aimed at breaking up public unions and, perhaps, support privatization of firefighting and other public services.

“What we’re going to hear more of is sort of blaming the victims of these natural disasters who don’t pay the higher premiums to get this special service,” author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism Naomi Klein said on Democracy Now! Radio in July. “You're starting to hear the language of personal responsibility…`It’s up to you to protect you and your family. You can’t look to the government.’”

The history of private firefighting is rife with controversy, and historians disagree on whether private firefighters have deliberately avoided protecting homes other than those insured. Last year, San Diego’s City Council approved a ballot initiative aimed at privatizing some city services. But critics contend privatization could lead to problems such as Philadelphia encountered, when fire hydrants froze due to lack of maintenance.

Feinstein grills San Diego officials

California politicians leveled sharp criticism at city leaders at Feinstein’s hearing last month. Other California politicians pointed fingers at the federal and state government for failing to coordinate swift dispatch of military aircraft armed with state-trained spotters in the first 48 hours of the fires.

“I’m a real private sector guy, but when Rome is burning, you have to have first responders,” said Republican Congressman Elton Gallegly, who represents California’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Feinstein is proposing legislation that would offer incentives for purchasing firefighting equipment to local governments that adopt fire-safe building codes in wildfire-prone areas.

San Diego officials note that some improvements have been made since the 2003 Cedar Fire. The County has spent $117 million, including purchase of firefighting helicopters and vehicles, upgrading communications, removing dead trees and other measures, according to Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who supports creation of a county fire department.

San Diego city officials were quick to fault voters for failing to approve a bond measure which would have increased funding for firefighting services. But former Chief Bowman laid blame squarely on elected officials.

“I doubt if the average voter understands that only 17 cents of every property tax dollar goes to local government,” Bowman remarked. “What it takes is leaders who will stand up,” he said, adding that public officials should educate voters on how tax dollars are spent—and why more money is needed.

Fire and police protection “are the two most important services” and should be publicly provided, Feinstein said. “I think people now see this is a pattern—and everything they hold dear could just dissolve.”