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Editor's Note
by Rick Markley, editor-in-chief

Will outsourced firefighting work?

The financial pressures weighing on municipalities will make outsourced fire service more appealing; we need to be in front of the issue

By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

Last week's announcement by North Riverside, Ill. officials that it may privatize its fire service could be sign of things to come.

Like many municipalities, the Chicago suburb is struggling to meet its pension obligations. It is getting no help from the state and faced with those and other rising costs, it is taking a hard look at outsourcing.

The financial burden of operating police, EMS and fire are by no means unique to North Riverside. Likewise, neither will be the allure of outsourcing.

Not to say the concept isn't working in some areas or won't in others, but I have some concerns about shifting to nongovernment, for-profit fire service.

My chief concern is that over the long run pressures to turn increased year-over-year profits will drive down the quality of equipment, service and salaries. As purely anecdotal as it is, I've not seen medics leave a municipal-run fire department for a job with a private ambulance company — the reverse is very common.

I'm also concerned about fire department oversight and accountability. An ineffective chief or officer can be removed or demoted fairly quickly, and it is a process that the paying public can have a hand in — I doubt is the case with private companies.

I'm concerned too that increased outsourcing will further divide the fire service. It is unlikely that individual municipalities will care a whit for firefighter unity, but it is clearly something we should think about. Whether career or volunteer, we need each other for the good of the fire service; a predominant private fire service could complicate that.

For profit fire service may be a great situation for communities and firefighters, or, it may be disastrous. Either way, it is something we should expect, discuss and plan for.




Comments
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Clint Mueller Clint Mueller Monday, June 23, 2014 1:59:55 PM Keep in mind that not all private fire departments are for-profit. My department is a private non-profit that gets along very will with our public counterparts in surrounding communities. We also don't cut corners, are very well equipped, and responsive to the community. We report to a Police and Fire Commission, as well as our City Council. It probably helps that we've been at it for over 120 years, though. If North Riverside is moving to a non-profit model, then it could be an advantage to the community (disregarding the pension concerns which, in my opinion, is a promise by the community that must be kept). If they are moving to a for-profit model, then yeah, I think that's a bad idea. It can be done, but it needs to be done carefully and with a lot of planning. To your point about a divided fire service - I can't see this having much of an effect. Until we can put less weight on the terms "volunteer" and "career" and more on "firefighter", there will always be division in the service.
Patrick Coughlin Patrick Coughlin Tuesday, June 24, 2014 8:26:12 AM In my day, city councils used "privatization" as a bogeyman threat in hopes of reducing expenses. In the North Riverside case, the village council is considering it as a way to shift a cost burden, but it cannot work unless the private service reduces expenses. It has the same options as the village currently has. It can increase charges for its services, just as the village council can increase taxes. It can cut personnel, cut wages and/or cut pensions, just as the village can do. Shifting the costs of fire protection to a private service does not remove the problem. North Riverside's problem stems from a state mandate, but fire departments all over the country are being pressured to cut costs just like non-emergency services. The reason for the budget cuts may be reduced revenues, or a desire to cap government expenses in general or fire department expenses in particular. Other public services have used technology to become more efficient, but fire suppression is manpower-intensive. The only options are to cut personnel, wages or benefits. Shifting the burden to a private company does not reduce the burden.
Clint Mueller Clint Mueller Tuesday, June 24, 2014 11:27:35 AM When you put it that way, I absolutely agree. I don't see how this would actually benefit the community beyond writing a single check for service and not having to manage anything else. It's probably a given, though, that if and when this goes private that pension is the first to get cut, and that's absolutely wrong.
Mike Bloom Mike Bloom Tuesday, June 24, 2014 2:38:47 PM Just to clarify the issue at hand is because this municipality hasn't paid any of their obligations into the fire pension in 5 out of the last 10 years. This privatizing issue is a way for the cowards who run this village to get out of their obligations. Privatizing public services like police, fire and EMS is a terrible idea. The people working there are the villages employees so the village isn't entitled to a background check, the employee can sue the village and the resident should they get injured while on a run. Lastly what happens when the profit margin starts to shrink? The private companies aren't going to not make a profit. They are either going to raise their price, which will fall back on the taxpayer or they're gonna leave and then what does the village do? BTW have you notice no one has ever talked about privatizing police departments? I wonder why that is.
Patrick Coughlin Patrick Coughlin Tuesday, June 24, 2014 7:23:34 PM Privatizing won't remove the village council from its obligations. It must still pay the private service the fees agreed to in its contract. However, it lets the council to shift the blame to the private provider when it makes the cuts necessary for it to stay in business.
Clint Mueller Clint Mueller Wednesday, June 25, 2014 11:56:06 AM Regarding your comment about the private police force - I've often wondered the same thing. I really think it's the difference in duties: A firefighter or paramedic is there to help you and nothing more. By that, I mean they have no arresting power and no power to use deadly force, where as a police officer does. Personally, the idea of being imprisoned by a company makes me very nervous, where as having a private paramedic come to my aid doesn't. As for the profit margin, not all private companies are for-profit. To my original post on this article, if done carefully and well planned, with a non-profit model, this could work for the community. I would rather see the community pay their obligations, though, than shift the burden.

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