Thursday, October 30, 2003

Private Fire Prevention

Fire Fighting for Profit from by Nancy W. Poole

Fire-fighting services don't need to be provided by government. For-profit is better, and Scottsdale, Arizona, industry leader Rural/ Metro Corporation proves the point. Mayor Herbert R. Drinkwater doesn't need prodding to lavish praise on Scottsdale's second largest nationally headquartered company. "I'm a great believer that the private sector can normally do things a little better than the public sector-and for less money," says Drinkwater. "Our fire service does a superb job," he continues matter-of-factly. "The citizens of Scottsdale love it. I get compliments all the time on Rural/Metro's performance."

Statistics back the mayor's enthusiasm. A recent poll by Arizona Opinion and Political Research found that by a margin of six-to- one, Scottsdale voters prefer Rural/Metro to the option of a municipally owned fire department.

Moreover, the price is right. Drinkwater says that because of Rural/Metro, Scottsdale citizens benefit from a superior level of fire service at a considerably lower cost than if the city had a municipal fire department.

Drinkwater, however, doesn't want to focus exclusively on economics. "Even more important," he stresses, "the kind of service Rural/ Metro provides is based on incentive and innovation. So our citizens aren't subject to the constraints experienced with traditional municipal fire departments."

For example? "'The traditional emphasis is on fire response," Drinkwater answers. "We think Rural/Metro's emphasis on prevention is a more effective way to deal with fire protection service.

The company's core philosophy is prevention. As a result, Scottsdale citizens are offered a much better balance between response and prevention than is available in most communities."

Rural/Metro's unique mix of part-time firefighters working alongside career professionals makes Scottsdale's fire protection service one of the most economical in the nation, and one of the most effective.

There are literally hundreds of small private fire companies along with seven industry leaders in 14 states, according to Private Sector Fire Association statistics. Rural/Metro is not only the largest such company in the country, it is an industry model for customer service, excellence, cost containment, and innovation.

For example, an increasing number of established departments are emulating Rural/Metro's subscription services in remote areas. Rural/Metro created the concept of providing fire protection to areas that might otherwise have difficulty obtaining any fire or emergency medical service at all - communities without the tax base to subsidize fire departments. Rural/Metro currently services communities in Arizona, Tennessee, and Oregon on a subscription basis.

The subscription process is voluntary. Rural/ Metro contracts with home and property owners in subscription areas, who pay annual fees for fire protection and emergency medical service. Level of service is based on population density and geography.

Rural/Metro is the first-responder agency in these locales. A non-subscriber must pay a fairly high hourly rate per fire-fighting unit if it is necessary for Rural/Metro to respond to a fire at that person's residence or property... (The adequate protection of members' properties requires response to all fires and medical emergencies in a subscription area.)

...Rural/Metro has a strong prevention ethic. "The best way to fight fires is to prevent them," comments Edwards. "For example, we have a much higher number of inspectors per capita than is the norm." Rural/Metro fire inspectors are also asked to serve as fire- fighters, so that their awareness of hazards in buildings throughout the community often aids in the suppression of fires. "For us," Edwards explains, "it's not prevention and suppression; instead, it's prevention/suppression-the two components interact."

As a national leader in the development of fire prevention programs, Rural/Metro abundantly communicates prevention to its customers through many training and education programs. These include home fire-safety inspections, CPR classes, emergency first aid, water and mountain rescue courses, and hazardous materials services, as well as fire safety education classes in the schools.

With top performance records and dramatically lower costs than publicly owned counterparts, Rural/Metro is a hard-to-beat sell. Nevertheless, since public sector turf is often just across the street, the company's nonunion, privatized operation is frequently a target for intra-city politics and media misconceptions. (Rural/Metro's employees recently voted down union membership.) Firefighter Wes Kemp elaborates. "Our position as a privatized emergency services company is a challenge because we are continually up against the municipalities to prove ourselves."

Historically, a rivalry has existed between Rural/Metro and unionized municipal departments. "We position the company not in a directly competitive mode with these departments, but as a fire service alternative," says Suzanne Brossart, Rural/Metro's corporate communications manager. Brossart adds that Rural/Metro does not approach communities that have established municipal fire departments. "Instead," she explains, "we prefer to target small but growing communities that don't have fire departments or that want to expand volunteer departments into full-time services. With this approach, we can build our strong fire prevention and operational philosophies directly into a community's development."

President/CEO Manschot adds, "We must continue building relations with other agencies, and reinforcing an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and respect."

Rural/Metro's philosophy translates into financial success. Corporate revenues have grown over the past 10 years from $6 million to almost $65 million annually, increasing in the past three years alone by over $24 million. Revenues for the current fiscal year are estimated at nearly $68 million.

Rural/Metro Corporation has shown that firefighting and other emergency services can be privatized, with outstanding results. As municipal budget crises plague many communities, privatization is an option that merits careful study.

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