Friday, November 25, 2016

Watching Slums Burn: Why Privatization Can't Fix Our Fire Departments (Or Our Schools)

Our new town has a serious problem with the fire department. 

It's poorly managed, morale is dangerously low, and the most important needs -- training and equipment -- are consistently under-funded. In reviewing last year's budget, an obscene amount of public funding is wasted on an elite firefighter sports league, which even included a new athletic complex (ironically, closed to the public). 

One councilman likes to point out that the new bird-watching trail in The Woodlands received more public support, campaigning, and funding than a much-needed upgrade to the city's original Fire Station #1 built over 100 years ago, and still serving our downtown neighborhood. 

Rather than replace the fire chief and a few captains, and rather than support our firefighters by paying a solid livelihood, several community special interest groups successfully pushed legislation that diverts public funds toward private fire safety initiatives.

Below are four case studies from the new program: 

1. The most interesting story to come out concerns the 24-acre estate of an oil exec just inside city limits. He applied for (and received!) public funding to set up his own personal fire safety system. 

To his credit, it's a very innovative and already successful automated advanced warning system. The nearby fire chief (whose station had its budget cut to help fund these private grants) said the estate's fire safety system would be an ideal addition to any home, but homeowners would need a significant amount of personal capital, in addition to the fire safety subsidy.

2. In an unsurprising outcome of this new program, the gated community a few blocks to our north hired private firefighters and built their own station by combining neighborhood HOA funds with a private grant from the newly established public fire safety fund. 

Within the first two months of establishing their own department, the community lost a house to fire, because it was delinquent on HOA fees, and therefore not eligible for coverage by the private station. 

In a calamity of unfortunate events, the nearby city department responded in plenty of time, but a hose malfunctioned, and firefighters could only pull the family to safety, as the house burned. An investigation is pending, since the defective hose failed inspection two months ago, but has yet to receive approval or funding for replacement.

In an irate statement to the press, the city fire chief blamed private fire safety initiatives for siphoning funds away from basic supplies and staffing needs for his public stations. 

The neighborhood HOA president is stepping back from candid remarks made to a local news crew covering the fire: 

"While it is unfortunate to lose a house in our neighborhood, we are thankful everyone is safe. I really believe this fire is a blessing in disguise for this family. I mean, now they are free from those HOA fees that they couldn't afford anyway! And it's probably for the best that they just move to a neighborhood that's, um, more affordable for them. They'll still have the public fire station any time they need it! I mean, the public station didn't help them this time, with that hose problem and all, but um, I'm sure they'll be fine! It's just so important for people to understand their financial responsibilities when they move to a neighborhood like this, even with a publicly-funded private fire station. It's such a special neighborhood, and everyone just cares for everyone else in such a special way."

Needless to say, plenty of YouTube tribute videos are already satirizing her comments over a slideshow of burning infernos, with much social media criticism for the pillaging of public safety funds for private neighborhood safety programs.

3. A volunteer fire department formed in one of our middle class neighborhoods. They used a grant from the public safety fund to daisy-chain hoses and splice into nearly every spigot on the block. While the fire chief has openly condemned their methodology as outdated and ineffective, this neighborhood's response time and success rate far exceeds the public fire stations.
Unfortunately, neighbors with disabilities can't participate, since the co-op system depends on a base of participants with the physical and mental capacity to actually fight fires. 

Also, any family with two working parents isn't allowed to participate in this style of public-funded fire protection, because someone must be home at all times and available to fight fires as they occur.

4. Finally, there's a very devout Christian community on the far east side of town. The city built a special fire station to service this area, but since it was a government building, the firefighters couldn't put up religious articles or host Bible studies on site, so with a grant from the new public fire safety fund, the community built a secondary "Christian" fire department nearby. It actually serves as a very popular community center as well, in addition to their neighborhood church.

With necessary budget cuts to the public program, to allow for the funding of these private fire safety programs, the original fire station servicing this area needed to close. It wouldn't have been a big deal, but some livestock were just killed in a barn fire last weekend, because the Christian fire department is closed on Sundays.

By Kpahor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Just to clarify, I fully support letting people in our town take whatever personal measures they feel are necessary for fire safety, whether it's a private, co-op, or religious solution. 

I just can't understand why we're funding their private endeavors that are incapable of serving the safety needs of everyone in the community, instead of investing in the personnel and infrastructure we already have to fairly distribute fire safety services to everyone. 

Alright, I'm not talking about fire departments. I'm talking about schools, and the popularization of a national voucher program allocating public funds for private or homeschool education. 

An education voucher system diverts money from fixing a good and necessary program into an inherently unequal distribution of special interests. It ignores -- and worse, dismisses -- the needs of the most vulnerable:  children of extreme poverty (who can now get a voucher to a more exclusive school but still can't afford the transportation across town, uniforms, supplies, lunch, or after-school care), and those with physical and mental disabilities who are regularly turned away from private school options. 

As a final thought, the voucher system does to education what Obamacare did to healthcare: provide government subsidies to private companies in an attempt to provide basic services for everyone. Prices skyrocketed, services fell, and while the elderly and poor could fall into safety nets of Medicaid and Medicare, and the rich could get by as the rich always gets by, the middle class loses. 

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