Will outsourced firefighting work?

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By Rick Markley, Fire Chief and 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.

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