Privatized Firefighters Aid Insurance Companies

In the wake of the increase in wildfires throughout the American West, insurance companies are taking the proactive step of hiring and utilizing private fire crews to assist homeowners in more fire-prone areas. While the practice has been in place since the 1970s, these measures have understandably been taken more frequently as of late.

Firms such as Pure Insurance and Chubbs Limited have implemented this service for their policyholders over the last decade, and given the nature of these fires over the past few seasons, it’s proving useful across 13 states. Its benefits are enjoyed most strongly in California, as development stretches its fingers further into fire-prone areas where the fire season is essentially year round.

These privatized firefighters don’t necessarily work alongside government agencies in active fire suppression. However, they are with companies contracted by the insurance companies to patrol the neighborhoods of policy holders, and they take preventative steps to reduce the likelihood of damage should a fire approach the home.

Their responsibilities mainly involve prepping homes for approaching fires. This preparation includes sprinklers and fire-retardant foam, cleaning gutters, and clearing away shrubbery and other vegetation to create a perimeter around the homes. If they are dispatched and find fire on the property, they put it out (of course), as they are equipped with apparatus indistinguishable from that of conventional fire agencies.

This has historically been a controversial practice. In fact, the concept of a privatized fire department makes a great many people squeamish. They are concerned with the possibility of special treatment for higher-paying customers or prioritization of those who opt into the service over those who can’t afford it, even if it makes strategic sense to work in an area not formally covered by the private company.

Another concern is that there has been little (if any) coordination between public and private services. The private companies, some have thought, do little to pass along information to the public agencies that might aid them in suppression efforts. And, of course, when the fire agencies officially declare one particular zone unsafe and the private firms show up, there arises a huge question of liability and safety.

However, recent years have seen a growing cooperation and appreciation for these privatized services. The U.S. Forestry service frequently contracts private firms such as Mt. Adams Wildfire to assist and support suppression efforts. As Don Holter, owner of Mt. Adams, puts it, “It saves money.” The private firefighters are not unionized. “No overtime, no retirement,”

As these recent fires have ravished California from north to south, the level of cooperation between public agencies and private firms has increased. The public agencies are grateful for the support, since the firms do not draw any resources away from their suppression efforts. Since the contractors are not first responders, there is less concern for the safety of the contracted workers who provide this support by tending to the policyholders’ homes.

Communications between the separate entities has increased as well. Information is shared, and the contractors send liaisons to daily briefings.

When the private firms are dispatched, anxious policyholders receive updates via text message or email concerning the status of their homes (something the public agencies have no time to do). This is a great comfort to owners of property valued in excess of one million dollars.

As this practice gains traction in the new normal of extended fire seasons and more intense blazes, the relationship between public and private is expected to grow closer. For the insurance companies, paying a fire crew to install prevention measures and perform light suppression duties makes better business sense then simply allowing a home to succumb to the fires, eventually having to pay out the claims for property loss. As it proves cost effective, we can expect more crews and more frequent deployments.

Concerns over safety or lax standards remain unfounded as Mt. Adams Wildfire and many other companies have reported high success rates in achieving their purpose of home protection and have recorded very low injury counts (and no deaths).

It certainly seems like a good idea for the Fire and Forestry agencies to cooperate as much as possible with whatever support is available. Their struggle to deploy adequate resources to combat these blazes in the looming fire seasons will only grow as budget committees lag behind the new fire trends. With a near perfect safety and performance record from the contractors, as well as their compliance in working within declared hazardous areas, it appears to be fruitful relationship.



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