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Private firefighters' role growing in state

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  • Private firefighters' role growing in state

    What are your thoughts on this? Do you see this as a growing trend? How do you think this will affect the future (or will it?) of public fire protection? I am aware that there are cities that contract out their fire and EMS to private companies (and combining fire and police into one PSO as noted in the other thread).

    Private firefighters' role growing in state
    John Coté, Chronicle Staff Writer

    Sunday, July 27, 2008

    Residents in Piedmont can have a private fire protection company try to save their homes from a wildfire, a luxury not offered to residents living blocks away in a less affluent ZIP code in Oakland.

    In Ukiah, Mendocino Redwood Co. hired more than 100 firefighters from an Oregon firm and rented a water-dumping helicopter to battle 31 wildfires that threatened its 229,000 acres of timber in June while state fire crews were engaged elsewhere.

    Across California, many of the bulldozers used to cut firebreaks are from private contractors, as are some of the aircraft used to drop retardant. Hundreds of private firefighters work alongside counterparts from government agencies, cutting fire breaks, setting backfires and mopping up.

    Increasingly, the job of fighting fires and protecting homes is being done not by the government, but by private companies.

    "We call it the fire industrial complex," said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter and now executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a nonprofit in Eugene, Ore., dedicated to environmentally sound fire management. "It's big business, and business is booming."

    Critics say contracting out traditionally public functions - a practice that in the Iraq war has led to privately organized security details and troop support services - shifts accountability, can be more expensive and erodes people's confidence in government.

    "What's worrying about private firefighters is that there are growing portions of the economy that are banking on, gambling on, that there are going to be more and more natural disasters," said Naomi Klein, author of the book "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism." "People are going to forget the point that's actually involved here - solving the problems like Category 5 hurricanes and wildfires."

    Big help for government
    Backers counter that private contractors beef up state resources and are invaluable during an emergency - such as the 2,093 wildfires that have ravaged California since June 20 - without requiring the government to keep more full-time firefighters and equipment at taxpayers' expense.

    "There's a value to that," said Deborah Miley, executive director of a private firefighting industry group, the National Wildfire Suppression Association. "We accept the risk. We accept the liability for the equipment. We take on the costs of the training."

    The U.S. Forest Service spent $127 million on private contractors to fight California wildfires in fiscal 2007, said John Heil, a spokesman who described contractors as "a valuable part of the team." Private companies were used to provide everything from aircraft to water trucks to catering and portable hand-washing stations at base camps.

    Miley's group represents companies that employ more than 10,000 firefighters. She estimates that 40 percent of the personnel and equipment used to put out wildfires across the country comes from private contractors.

    In 2005, the insurance company AIG began offering wildfire protection services free to some customers who pay $10,000 in annual premiums or have homes valued at more than $1 million. Enrollment in the program more than doubled in the past year to 3,200 homes, AIG spokesman Peter Tulupman said.

    Two other insurers, Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. and the Chubb Group, have started similar services.

    "Wealthy people like to live in very attractive areas, and these beautiful areas are prone to natural catastrophes," Tulupman said.

    AIG offers the fire protection service in 200 upscale ZIP codes in Colorado and California, including Atherton, Woodside and the Berkeley hills. It covers the 94611 ZIP code for Piedmont, but not the adjacent 94602 ZIP code.

    "We cater to a very small, exclusive clientele," Tulupman said. "We're not a mass-market insurer."

    AIG Private Client Group contracts with an outfit to send crews to clients' homes at the beginning of the fire season to spray perimeter vegetation with a fire retardant. If a fire approaches, a crew is dispatched to apply retardant to the house and landscaping, but it does not remain to battle the blaze, Tulupman said.

    "It's not a private firefighting service by any means," he said. "If a house is on fire, we're not going to put it out. It's a preventative measure."

    Communication concerns
    Some fire officials worry, though, that those private crews will get in firefighters' way or be cut off in a swift-moving blaze and need rescuing.

    "Communication is a huge issue for us," said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "If you're not communicating with the division on either side of you and the other resources on the fire, that could pose a very serious threat."

    That's not a problem for the AIG contract crews, who check in with the incident commander before entering a fire zone, said Sam DiGiovanna, a retired Monrovia (Los Angeles County) fire chief who oversees them.

    "If it's too dangerous, we'll abide by the incident commander's rules," DiGiovanna said. "I've heard of some loose-cannon-type companies that just barrel through. We don't do that."

    Others are concerned about the contract fire crews' training and cost.

    "Part of the growth is the conservative ideology that says private industry can do better than public agencies. That's purely ideology," said Ingalsbee, the director of the fire management nonprofit. "It was sold to the taxpayers that this would be cheaper and efficient, that you only use the crews when they're needed. But some of them come at pretty exorbitant rates."

    Problems in '02
    He pointed to an April 2004 federal report on the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon and Northern California, which burned 500,000 acres and cost more than $150 million to extinguish. The report said, "Poorly trained and inexperienced contracted crews presented significant operational concerns."

    Some crew and squad bosses could not communicate in English with government supervisors, and managers had to change firefighting tactics because it was unsafe to use some of the contract crews for aggressive operations, said the report by the agency now called the Government Accountability Office.

    The industry has since improved training, including an English-language evaluation for crew bosses, Miley said.

    Mike Jani, president of Mendocino Redwood Co., had only praise for contract crews he hired to defend the company's stands of redwoods and Douglas fir after lightning strikes in late June started hundreds of blazes statewide and taxed state firefighting resources.

    "Fantastic group. I mean really, really good," Jani said. "This was a fire experience unlike California had ever faced before, and it necessitated us calling them. We would always prefer to go through Cal Fire."

    Tony Leonardini, a St. Helena firefighter, praised a contract crew from Washington he encountered while fighting the Sugarloaf Fire west of Boonville, part of the Mendocino Lightning Complex of fires that broke out June 20 and burned 53,300 acres.

    "They were good," Leonardini said. "Obviously they were trained. They had great equipment."

    Josiah Campbell, a 24-year-old hand crew boss for Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression in Chico, has fought wildfires from California to Florida for the company since he finished high school. In a fire-resistant shirt and cargo pants, both layered with ash and dirt on his 26th day on a fire line in Shasta County, Campbell looked indistinguishable from a government firefighter.

    "The big difference is the paperwork. Usually we have less," Campbell said. "We're all out there doing the same job, the same piece of line."

    But insulating the wealthy from reliance on public fire protection could undercut the system as a whole, similar to disputes over funding public education and health care, Klein said.

    "When (wealthy) people opt out of the public system and opt for private schools and private health care, they lose interest in maintaining the integrity of the public system," the author said, "and it starts to erode."

    Jim Wills, founder of Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression, which contracts crews with the U.S. Forest Service and is Chubb's local contractor for home protection, said those fears are unfounded.

    "We hope to be part of the solution," Wills said. "We're not the enemy. We're here to help."

    In Bay Area section
    Fire explodes in size: A blaze burning about 30 miles west of Yosemite Valley jumped from 1,000 to 16,000 acres. B3

    By the numbers
    Forest Service fiscal-year costs for contractors fighting California wildfires:

    -- 2007: $127 million

    -- So far in 2008: $75 million

    Cal Fire estimates for payments to contractors and local fire agencies:

    -- 2007: $137 million

    -- 2008: $261 million

    Sources: U.S. Forest Service, state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection

    E-mail John Coté at [email protected].

    Last edited by superchef; 07-27-2008, 04:06 PM.

  • #2

    I see nothing wrong with this. I DO see something wrong with the lady Author who was quoted near the beginning of the article though. "Solving the problem" of Fires, Hurricanes, etc?? What the Heck?? If she finds out how to "Solve the problem" of a Hurricane, I'd like to be there to see it. Government can't do Everything, all the time. As far as the wealthy getting better service, if they're writing the check, why not??.
    Never use Force! Get a Bigger Hammer.
    In memory of
    Chief Earle W. Woods, 1912 - 1997
    Asst. Chief John R. Woods Sr. 1937 - 2006

    IACOJ Budget Analyst

    I Refuse to be a Spectator. If I come to the Game, I'm Playing.



    • #3
      In our county we have 17 departments. 2 of them are paid municipal departments, 2 more are fire districts and hence are political entities. The remainder are private companies that get paid by the various towns they protect.


      • #4
        Last edited by NCalElias; 07-27-2008, 11:26 PM. Reason: didn't like it


        • #5
          First, I would not classify them as firefighters.


          The link above has good footage of a fire near yosemite.


          • #6
            There are two major iterations of contract/private firefighting, and their roles in wildland firefighting are quite different. The more traditional form is where companies such as Firestorm (mentioned in the article) have their roots and is quite prominent in the Pacific Northwest while it hasn't been received as well in California. They contract engine companies, hand crews, and just about anything else an incident could need (aircraft, camp support, etc), and especially in the latter examples are extremely dominant. There's long been controversy over these contractors providing firefighters on engines and hand crews, and there are quite a few valid concerns in this realm. Essentially these companies train and equip their personnel, which renders quite a few problems, both with firefighters who are inadequately equipped (why was a rookie firefighter on a hand crew allowed to go anywhere near a fire with only two water bottles) and even worse, inadequately trained. Not to point fingers, but while some of these companies take their training and equipment very seriously, some don't. To speak anecdotally, I've sat through a 40-hour that was essentially a joke... very little information was provided, even less received, and in reality not a single person in the class left the room knowing anything more than when they entered it. This 40-hour is the basic firefighter training - and a cornerstone of our safety programs. To have the instructors cluelessly stick a video about helicopter pilot PPE in the VCR, leave, and come back about 45 minutes after it ended to discuss it (they hadn't realized it was that irrelevant), was to say, ridiculous. The class as a whole ran along those lines. While not such an issue this far south, there have been concerns about language barriers in the Pacific Northwest, and in these have led to serious safety issues though work has been done to mitigate this problem. Some of these crews have very poor work ethics, while many have excellent work ethics - and that has a lot to do with the leadership. A common complaint of supervisory agency personnel has been the need to babysit many of these crews, basically saying that they have serious concerns about the competency and safety of these crews. These concerns are not unfounded, though once again I don't wish to point fingers or blame names at this point. Drug usage among private firefighters is very problematic, and my experience... well, I don't know a whole lot of them who don't have a favorite illegal substance. Smoking marijuana on the fireline is completely unacceptable. It happens. Another major concern is to understand that these contract firefighters are only paid when they're on a fire. No fires, no cash. From time to time, there's been issues where contractors, to put it nicely, have made work for themselves.

            However, with some "privatize the government" agendas that have been running around lately, don't expect this to go away anytime soon. The USFS is a wreck and the firefighters are acutely aware of it. I can assure you that I wrote pay and benefits on my exit interview (even if it was medical aids and structure fires that really got me to leave). The high-ups in the Forest Service don't want to fix it - they deny that problems exist even as high-level congressmen call them out on their bluffs. In all sincerity, I believe they truly desire for the greatest wildland fire service in this country to collapse - then they can privatize everything in this business.

            The other form of private firefighting is much newer, and I'm still a little uncertain on exactly what they're doing. My understanding is that insurance companies are hiring engines to spray retardant on expensive homes prior to the fire's arrival. That essentially they don't put out any fire, but simply make homes more defensible and less receptive to firebrands and leave before the fire ever arrives. Sounds like a good idea, but we need to be certain that it's coordinated through the ICS and that safety of these personnel is a priority.

            PS - Most of the money on the Cal-Fire side is probably going to local fire departments and the handful of county agencies. They're not too keen on the contractors.


            • #7
              I saw this recently linked to Drudge Report. Seems the debate about these private services is still going on.

              Source- https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/we...-their-n869061

              Insurance companies such as AIG are hiring experienced FFs as members of 2 man "mitigation" teams. They do pre-incident assessments and when a threat of wildfire occurs they are dispatched to perform tasks such as clearing brush and limps, foaming and spraying down exposures and hitting hotspots. It seems some of the government guys don't like the private services doing their own thing and not being part of their ICS. Frankly, I see this as being not much different than a company or homeowner contracting for Private Security when a threat of civil unrest occurs. Except these guys don't have Kevlar vests and pistols but have chainsaws and hoses.
              More about the AIG program featured in the article at- https://www-200.aigprivateclient.com...n-how-it-works
              EMT/Security Officer


              • #8
                I could see a use for these contractors for specialized equipment (aircraft, etc.) for special situations. Not every jurisdiction has the cash to staff/equip for all incidents. Obviously, a state may have its own DNR aircraft for wildland response, but they may not even staff it for the winter. If a major drought struck their state, the usual DNR aircraft & pilots may not even be enough to cover all incidents in their state. Contractors fill the void for skilled personnel (pilots, etc.) and equipment (aircraft, etc.).

                My solution in some cases, is for a state to mobilize its resources from their own national guard. This manpower is already at a states disposal to respond to emergencies. The National Guard has a rank structure, which has its leadership already identified. Even placing a few military members along side existing civilian services, can add manpower. Most National Guard assets in our states have pilots, medics, military police, truck drivers, etc. that can supplement labor for emergency operations.


                • #9
                  The whining of those who live of expanding the size of government unions. What else is new ?

                  If there is a problem with the quals of some contract firefighting outfits, the process to ensure uniform training needs to be fixed. It's a question of good vs. bad, not public or private.

                  Those outfits that harden properties in case of approaching fires are just that. A tool for the insurers to minimize their loss. To some extent this is the private sector stepping in to perform risk mitigation where the public sector has failed. As long as they don't get in the way of the state/fed crews, I don't see how you could deny a property owner the right to minimize his risks.


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by Too_Old View Post
                    Those outfits that harden properties in case of approaching fires are just that. A tool for the insurers to minimize their loss.
                    I would opine that they are little different from the salvage corps that existed in many cities - funded by the insurance companies.

                    Opinions my own. Standard disclaimers apply.

                    Everyone goes home. Safety begins with you.


                    • #11
                      I would suggest that these private contractors hardening properties against wildfires are doing a job that most local fire departments have neither the time nor staffing to attempt.
                      Crazy, but that's how it goes
                      Millions of people living as foes
                      Maybe it's not too late
                      To learn how to love, and forget how to hate


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by FyredUp View Post
                        I would suggest that these private contractors hardening properties against wildfires are doing a job that most local fire departments have neither the time nor staffing to attempt.
                        That, too!

                        Opinions my own. Standard disclaimers apply.

                        Everyone goes home. Safety begins with you.


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by FyredUp View Post
                          I would suggest that these private contractors hardening properties against wildfires are doing a job that most local fire departments have neither the time nor staffing to attempt.
                          I suspect the home owners respond better as well. Insurance company threatens to raise rates, or drop the customer, Yes, sir right away! Fire department tells them to clean up or they will get a fine F'n Gubment over reach!


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by FyredUp View Post
                            I would suggest that these private contractors hardening properties against wildfires are doing a job that most local fire departments have neither the time nor staffing to attempt.
                            Money, too. Some communities do not want to pay for fire protection. We all know that it costs a ton of funding to equip, staff and conduct operations. While we want to provide the optimum service to our community, funding is an issue.

                            In my area, you can go to one community and have awesome community support. Newer apparatus, younger people involved, successful fundraisers and other support. We actually have a city in my county, that closed its fire department around 12 years ago. The city council voted to dissolve it. No formal fire protection arrangement has been made since, to have fire protection services for that city. Became a "No Mans Land." Last month, a fire broke out, other fire departments and fire districts were expected to respond, to this city that does not pay for fire protection. The ultimate wakeup call and now they are looking into annexing into an adjacent fire district. I do not know how any of the commercial properties in that city, ever got fire insurance coverage.

                            When you see a McMansion being built, you can guarantee that a lawn sprinkler system will be installed in the lawn. If you ask if fire sprinklers will be built in the McMansion, you can be assured "that would cost too much." Its all about priorities.

                            Sorry for the rant.


                            • #15
                              it's always been a case where the rich can afford more stuff.
                              If my basic HazMat training has taught me nothing else, it's that if you see a glowing green monkey running away from something, follow that monkey!



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