Private Firefighers for Rich Homeowners

The Southern California fire disaster has revealed another benefit of being rich: better protection against fires!

Insurance company AIG has a private client group, an elite program offered only to homeowners with properties valued at $1 million or more. During the firestorm, the company arranged private firefighters to come and protect the homes of its richest clients, one of whom said:

"Just picture it," said Moore, whose house was sprayed by Firebreak early Monday. "Here you are in that raging wildfire. Smoke everywhere. Flames everywhere. Plumes of smoke coming up over the hills. 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. . . . It was really, really comforting."

No one's faulting homeowners for wanting to save their houses from fire, but is this a dangerous trend of preferential treatment for wealthy people in cases of emergencies?

"What we have is a dangerous confluence of events: underfunded states, increasingly inefficient disaster response, a loss of faith in the public sphere . . . and a growing part of the economy that sees disaster as a promising new market," said Naomi Klein, whose new book, "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," looks at, among other things, the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Klein said AIG offers a glimpse into the future of what she calls "disaster apartheid," in which the affluent are better equipped for emergencies.

"You can't fault businesses for seeing an opportunity, and you can't fault individuals for wanting to protect their property. Pretty much anyone who could afford it would want it," she said. "But survival shouldn't be a luxury item."

LA Times has a really interesting report on a "concierge-level" fire protection for the rich: Link (Photo: Don Bartletti / LA Times)

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The problem I see is that capitalism is not perfect, it is not a level playing field, it never will be. Humans are preferential animals, preferring the company of those similar to themselves, which is why there are laws against discrimination based on race, sex, religion, etc. This is the reason many necessary services continue to be handled by government agencies, so that the risk of discrimination, for whatever reason, is limited. Before you start, it doesn't work perfectly, once again, humans aren't perfect, but everyone has the right to vote, while only a few have the money to buy these services outright.

Right now, due to the uneven and unfair tax cuts favoring the wealthy in our society, the wealthy can afford even more of these private services. We should have learned by now that trickle down does not work. It didn't work 20 years ago; it will never work. If these homeowners were paying their fair share of taxes, there would have been a lot more money for the fire services that would have benefited all the citizens, not just the wealthy.

Blackwater is an excellent example. Because they do not answer to government oversight and regulation in the same way as our troops, they easily abuse and murder and are creating a situation that is putting our troops at risk. Compare it to the LAPD.

Starting in the 70s, when the LAPD was being turned into a quasi-military organization due to the city government's failing to maintain its control, it only worsened violence. Removing the beat cops and replacing them with armored officers in armored cars created a schism that will never be fixed. If the city government had properly watched over the force, preventing the discrimination that inevitably followed, it's possible that the gang activity that has since spread throughout the country could have been slowed significantly and/or limited.

Privatizing fire services could result in firefighters who simply do not answer calls in neighborhoods they prefer to avoid. What will happen? Someone could sue them, maybe, if there's a lawyer willing to take the case on contingency in the hope of deep pockets. What if there aren't deep pockets? What is the company simply denies everything and stymies the case in court for years? And it won't bring back the dead.
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Interesting description, Sid, thanks -- but I don't think it would quite play out as you've described it. You're assuming the work of a "private firefighter" is the same as that of a "public firefighter," which isn’t the case. The private crews protect individual properties, and do little or nothing to knock down the larger fire. There’s no substantial lessening of need in that scenario: the same requirements exist for public firefighters to actually fight the fire, rather than merely defend specific properties.

One other thing I don't follow: how would this scenario "also reduce the wage competition for the good people as well"? (And after you’re done explaining that, explain why reducing wage competition would even be a goal – I thought competition was good for everyone, always…)
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My local fire department is all volunteer, so I don't think your question applies. Beer, a blue light on their cars, and a place to hang out away from their wives keeps them happy :-)

Getting past that, though... You are ignoring the fact that in the presence of competition, things re-equilibrate. If private fire-fighting firms exist, yes all firefighter wages would go up, but better people would be drawn into the profession as well. Additionally, there is not an inexhaustible demand for firemen. Hirings at private firms would also LESSEN THE NEED for as many government-employed firemen. In the unlikely event that private fire fighting became a large scale phenomenum, governments would scale back the size of their forces. (If half the homes in Mailbu had private fire service, the city fire department could be smaller). This alone would reduce expenditures, but it would also reduce the wage competition for the good people as well. In the end, you'd just see a shift of some portion of the firefighting work force from public to private sector and probably a net savings to the taxpayer. It's hard to prove that in advance of course, but that is the net result whenever other government services are opened up to private competition -- the work gets done better and cheaper and the public benefits.

Very few services really should remain in the domain of the government: I would argue that these include the military (I am rather uneasy about growing reliance on Blackwater-type contractors... we should be able to pay our best military guys much more, especially those in the most dangerous service), the police, and the court system.

Economics... it's more than an idea; it's the law.
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Sid, will you still think competition is "good for everyone, always" when your taxes go up so your local fire department can compete for firefighters with private firms?
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