"We can't afford professional heroes."--Chief Lou Witzeman, Rural/Metro Fire Department, Inc.

Libertarians contend that the protected status of local government fire departments leads to increasing expense and "bureaucratization" in government-provided emergency services.  These factors eventually lead to burdensome and unsatisfactory emergency services.  Several instances of private and "semi-private" fire protection, ambulance, and rescue companies illustrate, however that many innovations and dramatic savings are possible--if politics is factored out.  The Libertarian program is to, remove exclusive franchises and tax-funded subsidies, and to require emergency service organizations to seek revenue from voluntary customers.
     As with every community service, the case for voluntary, free market fire protection and ambulance services finds its moral justification in the fact that it is wrong to compel people to support services they do not want.  And it should come as no surprise that voluntary emergency services will be delivered at better quality and less cost to the community.
     Private emergency services have been a part of life in Denmark for seventy years.  Several American organizations demonstrate that the idea works here, too.  But government emergency services, which are inevitably used as vehicles to advance various political interests, are caught in a downward spiral of bureaucratization which in some cities is leading to virtual breakdown.

The Cause of Government "Inefficiency"

     Even in private organizations the identity between providing the "service" and the organization's own interest is only as close as competition and consumer actions can persuade companies to make it. But where the coercive arm of government intrudes, and consumers are no longer free to withdraw support from "services" they dislike, we begin to witness for the first time organizations which develop into creatures doing something other than what we think they're "supposed" to do.  Absent free choice, fire protection and ambulance service start to become only the excuse, not the reason, for the fire department's existence.  The department evolves into a machine for dispensing pensions and lining the pockets of those who manufacture chrome-plated trucks.  It may appear at first that the firemen is the winner here; but he is a comparative piker in the competition to set up a fire protection monopoly and loot it for political gain.  Ultimately, he finds himself on the short end of the stick.
     Where the costs of emergency services grow too large and the competition for dollars intensifies, we begin to witness the retrenchment and withdrawal of fire and ambulance services.  In financially-strapped New York City, for example, the fire protection has sunk to levels unseen since before the 1930's.  In 1939, there were 44,698 fire alarms; in 1976, 422,840.  In 1938, 400 fires were serious enough to warrant more than a first-alarm assignment of manpower and equipment; in 1976, there were 4,365 such blazes.  Seventy-one people died by fire in 1939; 282 in 1976.  But there are fewer firemen working now than in 1939.  Since 1974 sixteen engine and ladder companies have been deactivated and eight firehouses closed. Firemen, who, in the words of New York fireman and author Dennis Smith "...once held the most prestigious position in the working-class civil service," now perceive themselves as ordinary workers in a typical labor-management adversary system ... working without distinction."1  Certainly, the fireman has been one loser here.  But the real victim is the consumer/taxpayer whose fire protection is simply being withdrawn while his money is still being taken.  If the New York case is dramatic, it is by no means unique.
     The costs of government involvement tend to be most serious in the large cities with their institutionalized municipal fire departments. Because governmental involvement in emergency services in most smaller communities is usually restricted to various "bargains" struck with volunteer fire companies (e.g., capital aid for agreements to provide certain kinds of service), direct political influences are easier to identify and eliminate.  Thus it is in the smaller communities where the lessons of private enterprise emergency services are most immediately applicable.

Private Emergency Services

     Consider, for instance, the story of Rural/Metro Fire Department, Inc., a private firm headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona (pop. 96,000).  Rural/Metro provides fire protection to thousands of individual subscribers in several unincorporated communities in the state.  On a government contract basis the company provides fire protection to an additional seven Arizona cities, ambulance service in five, security patrol service in another five, and sworn police officers in one.2
     In lightly populated areas, Rural/Metro has entered the market by providing individual subscriber fire protection, and watched its business grow with increasing development.  Often the builders of large residential projects such as Leisure World, Sun City, and Fountain Hills contracted at the outset with Rural/Metro for fire and security protection.  When some of these communities (such as Paradise Valley, Arizona) subsequently incorporated, residents chose to stay with their individualized subscriber fire protection rather than have the local government make one arrangement on behalf of everyone.
     Rural/Metro's volume increased from $650,000 in 1970 to over $3,000,000 in 1975, and the company added 3 stations in 1971, 5 in 1972, 7 in 1973, 8 in 1974.3  Rural/Metro is not the only such case. Private fire protection companies do business near Billings, Montana (pop. 68,000), in Grant's Pass, Oregon (pop. 14,000), in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, and at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.4  Together with the widespread acceptance of volunteer private fire companies (which outnumber paid departments 21,000 to 3,500),5 the success of private fire companies points up some real differences which begin to appear as government involvement in community services is factored out.
     Some of these are illustrated in the service which Rural/Metro provides its headquarters city of Scottsdale, Arizona.  Residents there obtain the lowest homeowners' fire insurance rates offered6 at a per capita fire protection cost one-fourth the national average for cities of 50,000-100,000 population.7  While the national per capita fire loss for the last twelve years has averaged about $12.00 a year, Scottsdale's average during this time has been held to $4.44 per year,8 and one study observed that if Scottsdale had obtained its fire, protection from a traditional municipal fire department, the city would (in 1973) have paid $475,000 instead of the actual $252,000 contract cost9 For fiscal 1975, Scottsdale paid Rural/Metro $498,355, and adding $145,322 of other fire-related outlays, the total came to $640,677 or $6.77 per capita.10
     Rural/Metro has innovated most deeply in the area of manpower costs, which comprise about 90% of a paid fire department's expenses.  Instead of staffing for "worst case" disasters, the company has chosen to maintain on-duty only the "core" of firemen needed for normal response levels.  This readily available manpower is then supplemented in three ways.  First, as a company which serves more than one jurisdiction, Rural/Metro can send in many on-duty firemen from outside a particular locality if a major emergency warrants doing so.  Since all of these men are trained in the same way and use the same equipment, the company's internal "mutual Aid" is considerably streamlined and improved over traditional arrangements between departments of separate municipalities.  Secondly, the company provides some technically off-duty firemen with radio paging devices and counts on their response in the event of a large conflagration.  Third, Rural/Metro has established a paid reserve firefighting corps known as the Auxiliaries. These reservists, who are selected and trained as rigorously as on-line firemen, are retained by the company to respond to calls when "on-duty" (wherever they might be) during one week out of every four.  Paid a monthly retainer fee plus wages for time spent in drilling and firefighting, the Auxiliaries have proven such a success that the number responding to calls averages higher than the number of Auxiliaries officially on duty.  With these innovations, Rural/Metro serves 96,000-person Scottsdale's mixed residences, commercial centers and light industry with just 41 full-time firefighters, 10 other full-time personnel, and 25 on-call Auxiliaries.  Contrast this to the national average of 118 full-time paid fire department employees for cities in Scottsdale's population range.11
     Rural/Metro has also branched out into manufacturing its own innovative equipment.  The company has introduced "attack trucks," light-frame, swift vehicles which accompany large pumpers on fire calls and free the pumper to return if the job is relatively minor. Rural/Metro's inventive shop has produced a fire truck design incorporating high-capacity four-inch hose, convenient quarter-turn hose couplings, and a portable pump which enables the truck to perform as "two pumpers in one."12  One such truck was built at about half the cost of a standard truck offering less than half the Scottsdale truck's water pumping capacity.  Replacing 2½ inch hose with four-inch hose allowed fire hydrant spacing in residential areas to be doubled.13  Further demonstrating the company s resourcefulness is a remote-control fire hydrant valve presently under development, and "The Snail"--a $3,000 tracked robot firefighter which does the work of four men, trundles into blazes of up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, ignores smoke, and shrugs off danger.14
     Why all this experimenting? Rural/Metro chief Lou Witzeman answers, "We have the greatest incentive in the world to innovate, to pioneer, to analyze every little step: sheer survival."15  Any subscriber to Rural/Metro's service can opt out by simply not renewing the contract.
     This spirit is not confined to American shores.  The Falck Company, a Danish concern established in 1906, today provides half of Denmark with fire protection, ambulances, and other emergency services.  Falck's 132 stations respond to 30,000 calls a year, protecting subscribers with 3,300 full-time rescue men, 1,200 part-time firefighters, 400 administrative aides, 1,000 ambulances, 700 wreckers, 300 fire engines, 100 ladder trucks, 100 rescue cars, and 900 miscellaneous trailers and vehicles.16  About two-thirds of Falck's business is derived from servicing local government contracts to provide "basic" emergency services to the Danish population, but the remaining third is comprised of various supplementary services which the company eagerly provides to some 850,000 family and corporate subscribers.  Falck services run the gamut, including road wrecker assistance, highway patrols, weather reports, free emergency first-aid kits, coastal rescues, diving and salvage, aerial ambulance transport, and an animal rescue service answering 30,000 calls yearly.17
     A caveat, now.  As government contractors, Rural/Metro and Falck are no more fully free-enterprise than is, say Con Ed or the railroad industry.  Such enterprises still receive support from two tools of government coercion: the legislative monopoly and the tax dollar.  But just as it makes a difference whether or not Con Ed and Conrail are nationalized, so does it matter whether Rural/Metro's and Falck's emergency services are operated directly by municipal departments or not.  Contracting out the function eliminates one influence for expropriation of the citizen--the politically powerful municipal union--and enables the municipality to evaluate the service more or less free of political pressure.  The rush of innovations which ensues upon even this mild "privatization" is suggestive of better things to come when the fire department is required to give up its legislative monopoly and seek voluntary consumer revenues.
     Returning to the United States, we discover that 480,000 people in nine parishes (counties) of rural Louisiana are served by a free-market ambulance and paramedic service.  Acadian Ambulance Service, Inc. is a profit oriented firm financed by $15-a-year subscriptions from some 74,000 families.  Member families receive free emergency transportation and reduced rates on non-emergency ambulance transport; the basic emergency service is available to everyone in the area. Acadian features excellent paramedic service, a radio network for communicating medical information between moving ambulance and hospital, and a fleet of 24 ambulances operating from 13 stations in a coordinated dispatching network.18
     Many ambulances have traditionally been operated by private volunteer fire companies, especially in smaller communities.  But the idea can go big-time, as witness the Bethesda/Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, Inc., a volunteer  ambulance, paramedic, and rescue service sustained wholly by fundraising drives, gifts, and income from investments.  With an annual budget of about a quarter million dollars, the volunteer company answers 8,000 calls yearly in northwest Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland using six paramedic vans, a mobile intensive care unit, a crash truck, three ambulances, and a rescue boat.19  Judging from the Rescue Squad's track record, the key to success with volunteer emergency services is professionalism and high morale.  As a consequence, the squad can be staffed with 150 volunteers, and applicants crowd the waiting lists--and the surrounding community gratefully supports the service.

Libertarian Proposals

     What will Libertarians do about emergency services?

     * Libertarians will put fire departments and ambulance corps on a voluntary basis.  Where volunteer departments or private companies already exist, nothing needs be done except to guarantee that local government not meddle in the relationship between the company and the consumers of emergency service protection.  Communities which presently contract with other local governments or private providers will find the transition to a complete free market easy: provider organizations will simply be asked to seek the patronage of customers directly and on a voluntary basis.  Local government subsidies, exclusive franchises, and any municipal department will be phased out in favor of returning the citizen his freedom to choose the emergency service he desires.  Any savings to the municipality should be passed through as tax cuts.  A local department need not necessarily be dismantled; it will simply be required to support itself in some voluntary fashion.  Whether this means conversion to a profit-oriented or "volunteer," cooperative basis is a matter for the department--after it is privatized--to decide.  Ultimately, the free competition of differing ideas for the favor of the customers will determine which pattern of operation best suits the needs of each community, and of different people within communities.



 1.  Dennis Smith, "Firemen Can't Walk Out," New York Times, July 2, 1977.
 2. Robert W. Poole, Jr., "Fighting Fires for Profit," Reason (May 1976), p. 9; and Poole, "Fat in the Fire Department," Cut Local Taxes (Santa Barbara, CA: Reason Press, 1976), p. 3. Cf,-Poole, "Firefighting for Profit," World Research Ink (June-July 1977), and "Private Enterprise Provides Fire Protection for 18% of Arizona's Population," AREA Bulletin, (January 1976), p. 1.
 3. Poole, Reason, p. 9.
 4. Poole, Cut Local Taxes, p. 3.
 5. Ibid., p. 3.
 6. Scottsdale has an Insurance Services Office rating of five. For western residential properties, homeowners' fire insurance rates are the same in ISO classes 1-5. (Poole, Reason, p. 9.)
 7. Poole, Reason, p. 7. 1972-73 figures.
 8. Ibid., P. 9.
 9. Roger S. Ahlbrandt, Jr., Municipal Fire Protection Services: Comparison of Alternative Organizational Forms, Sage Professional Papers in Administrative and Policy Studies, 03-002 (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1973).
10. Poole, Reason, p. 7. Fire-related expenses include primarily hydrant rents and contract administration.
11. Ibid., p. 8.
12. Ibid., p. 8.
13. Ibid., p. 8.
14. Ibid., p. 8.
15. Ibid., p. 9.
16. Ibid., p. 10.
17. Ibid., p. 10.
18. Poole, Cut Local Taxes, pp. 6-7.
19.  Ibid., p. 7.

Chapter 4
Table of Contents