As the first 48 hour fire strike gets under way John Blundell comments on how fire brigades can be run in better - and cheaper ways

Fire brigades can be run in better – and cheaper – ways

by John Blundell

Firemen are heroes. They wear bright uniforms; they drive big red vehicles with sparkling silver Klaxons; and they exhibit great courage, as on September 11 when 356 of them died at the World Trade Centre. The whole world felt for them and their families. We still do. We always will.

So, why do we harbour doubts about yielding to the 40 per cent pay demands of their trade union? And are there alternatives to how we currently supply and pay for fire suppression?

The Roman Emperor Diocletian struggled to pay his firemen until he allowed them to negotiate their fees on arrival at a conflagration. It was quickly noted that the incidence of fires at the homes of the wealthy rose. Caveat emptor.

William the Conqueror was so exasperated by his fire-prone Saxon vassals that he insisted all fires had to be extinguished by 6pm. It was a couvrefeu, hence curfew, and easy to enforce, as smoke is hard to hide.

Fire fighting evolved after the Great Fire of London as insurance or assurance companies found it useful to have their own brigades. You can still see surviving plaques on buildings bearing company names. The great caricature is that of the firemen of insurance company

A waiting, doing nothing, until the team from company B arrives too late to save the property. The reality was a very subtle process by which the first team to get there was rewarded regardless and there was an agreed salvage system.

In 1861, an enormous fire in Tooley Street in London caused £2 million of damage. The Fire Brigades Act of 1865 was the result. But it was not until 1938 that fire brigades were made mandatory in local authority areas, and this was more as a defence issue than out of admiration for the mixed qualities of municipal fire services. So they were not so much nationalised as municipalised.

Why our doubts? Being a fireman has its moments but they are few and far between and the daily demands are no towering infernos. If not sleeping, playing cards, eating or polishing their gear, those out on duty are mostly rescuing cats or flushing out blocked drains. And about half of them are never out, but rather in, filling in the paperwork.

No formal qualification is needed to join the force and whenever jobs are advertised, anything from 40 to 200 people apply per opening. One might normally expect to see their relative wages falling not rising! They enjoy restrictive practices and dismal performance redolent of the old “Spanish customs” of the print unions. To say they are hostile to change is a huge understatement.

For 50 years, Whitehall has regarded the fire service as second only to the prison service as ripe for reform but political will is frozen by the combination of an aggressive union and a vision that, although they are rascals, they can be flash heroes.

All but one per cent are white and all but one per cent are men. So, while it is not uncommon to see black firemen in America, it is very rare here. There is a subtle but very effective “freemasonry” at work.

What are the alternatives? Most fire protection (as opposed to fire suppression) is totally private. It is all about building design and maintenance coupled with alarms and sprinklers. Provision of “free” fire suppression services can be very easily shown to lead to overinvestment in fire brigades and underinvestment in fire prevention.

All the alternatives to municipal tax-funded provision, such as volunteers, subscription services, contracting out and user fees, are without exception less costly and give just as good service. A majority of American communities do not have municipal provision, though a majority of the population is so covered.

Of America’s 24,500 fire departments, 87 per cent are manned by volunteers and in most of the remainder volunteers supplement the efforts of the professionals. Overall, 91 per cent of America’s 2.2 million firemen are volunteers and the state of New York has only 62 paid departments compared with more than 1,800 volunteer ones.

It is a mark of great prestige to serve as a volunteer in the tradition of Ben Franklin, who started the first such force in Philadelphia in 1736, and to this day there are waiting lists for entry.

As much as 90 per cent of a typical fire department’s budget is salary, so if you can staff with volunteers the savings are enormous. The RNLI provides a happy domestic model. Its frontline personnel are skilled volunteers. They are all very brave. They have a high esprit de corps. They save many lives.

Private, for-profit firefighting firms can be found in Arizona, large parts of Tennessee, Georgia and Oregon and many other states, as well as in European countries such as Denmark. The entrepreneurs who start such companies tend to be former public sector firemen frustrated by their inability to innovate and improve.

In Denmark, where private provision covers half the population, the cost is only a third of that of the public service. Private firms either contract directly with a city or provide a subscription service directly to property owners.

Finally, user fees create great incentives to invest in fire prevention measures. The better you are at upgrading your prevention capabilities the lower your fee and the lower your insurance premium.

All known studies of private fire suppression show a similar if not better service is provided at significantly lower cost for several reasons. Private fire brigades use a mix of full-timers and reservists and face a much lower salary bill. They also cross-train firemen as security guards and paramedics and give multiple service provision. They innovate and are more pro-active in fire prevention.

Finally, they achieve efficiency through economies of scale by servicing several communities, thus spreading high fixed costs across many more people. Underlying all of this is competition and a culture far, far removed from that of Britain’s fire stations.

Public or private, firefighting is like defence: you pay to have it; you hope you will never need it; and it stands idle most of the time. But the key difference is that in the private sector such idle time is either minimised or put to good use.

Tony Blair continues to surprise. Perhaps he will not fudge tackling the heirs of Arthur Scargill.

John Blundell is General Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs

Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002.