Fire fight

June 4, 2008

The mayor of Muncie is considering a radical privatization idea to save money:

Mayor Sharon McShurley said she is considering privatizing fire protection or utilizing volunteer firefighters to compensate for expected shortfalls in property tax revenues.

“Why wouldn’t we if we can provide public safety to the city for less?” she asked.

[. . .]

The idea of privatizing fire protection or using volunteers to supplement paid firefighters was a hot topic at a conference of 100 Indiana mayors in French Lick last week, McShurley said.

“All the mayors are facing the same issues in Indiana,” she said.

During her campaign last year, McShurley questioned why the city could not use volunteer firefighters in a fashion similar to reserve police officers.

When there are discussions of privatization, public safety is frequently considered off-limits. But why should this be? A 1992 study of private fire firms in Denmark, Arizona, Tennessee, Georgia, Oregon and other states concluded that “private fire firms have figured out how to provide quality fire protection at lower cost than the typical public-sector municipal fire department.” One reason is that fire protection involves a lot of down time — taxpayers are paying in large part for the availability of firefighters even though they aren’t needed most of the time. Private firms are able to economize by making use of that down time by cross-training their personnel to perform other services (such as emergency road service and ambulance service). They can also serve several smaller communities with the same operation. In some places, as Muncie’s mayor notes, there is a mixture of paid firefighters and volunteers.

Privatization advocates are thinking about police services, too, but I’m a little more skeptical of that. I think it can be done, but police don’t just provide a public service. They have the duty to enforce laws and the power of arrest, which means they can control my ability or lack thereof to function freely. I’m not sure I want that power in the hands of the lowest bidder.

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