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Diana Shaw: Lessons in firefighting

Posted: September 7, 2009 9:25 p.m.
Updated: September 8, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Watching the mushroom-shaped atomic wannabe loom over the Santa Clarita Valley last week got me thinking.

As I write this, almost 5,000 fire personnel, brave men and women from as far away as Montana have been working tirelessly to contain Los Angeles County's largest fire in modern history.

The U.S. Forest Service took the lead, supported by the Los Angeles Fire Department, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, the L.A. City Fire Department, California Highway Patrol, Cal Trans, the Red Cross, California's Department of Fire and Forestry Protection and Southern California Edison.

These government and quasi-governmental employees are the nation's and California's pride, coordinating their efforts for our benefit.

It hasn't always been this way. Cooperation is a learned skill that takes focus and a commitment to the greater good.

Here's a few amazing factoids about the evolution of firefighting, instructive to those who lambast health care reformers for wanting to raise our standards to be comparable to other first-world nations. (The United States ranks 50th out of 224 nations in life expectancy according to 2009 CIA estimates, Japan is first and Canada ranks 8th.)

The modern evolution of firefighting started after the Great Fire of London in 1666.

At that time, competing insurance companies organized their own brigades.

If you didn't have your insurance identification posted, you were out of luck.

Today, without a health insurance card, you're in the same straights.

This tradition continued in the colonies where firefighting was also a competitive for profit industry.

In the early 1800s New York's infamous Boss Tweed entered politics by organizing his own fire gang.

In those days, the first brigade to arrive at the fire got the gig.

Free marketeers will note the finest attribute of this system, the incentive to arrive early.

The downside was the incentive to sabotage the competition.

Nowadays, health insurance companies compete to offer the best deal on the free market.

However, like Boss Tweed's fire gang, their bottom line is profit.

Once they have policyholders, cutting them loose when they are really in need of the benefits they thought they paid for is the logical next step.

According to a June 17, 2009, L.A. Times report, one Blue Cross employee earned an "exceptional performance" rating on an evaluation that noted the employee's role in dropping thousands of policyholders and avoiding nearly $10 million worth of medical care

Actually, private fire companies are once again popular as a way to combat tight budgets among some municipalities.

According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, one benefit from privatizing firefighting is that such enterprises don't have to hire union.

Great! That leads one to wonder about the quality and commitment of their firefighters.

In Indianapolis, where city services were privatized to save bucks, among numerous things that went wrong, fire hydrants froze due to poor maintenance.

Speaking of insurance companies and fire protection, it is fascinating that AIG, that very same disgraced, bailed-out entity that sucked our tax dollars into a black hole due to its own incompetence, saved some upscale homes during California's 2007 fire season.

I don't know AIG's present firefighting status (AIG's name has been changed due to its tainted status), but if jurisdictions cede their territory to companies like AIG, it may be too late to rebuild an infrastructure when it becomes clear that, as my old law school professor used to say: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Following the Civil War, when Boss Tweed was imprisoned for stealing an amount equal to up to 8 billion of today's dollars, governments started to operate big city fire departments that in turn trained and rewarded their employees well.

The new system spread like ... well ... wildfire.

I cringe to think of what we would now have in place had the likes of Limbaugh, Beck or Sarah Palin been around to scream, "They're taking away our freedom to burn!" or threaten, "They'll refuse to drop fire retardant on nursing homes because saving old people is inefficient!"

We're blessed that California's firefighters and those of the nation have seen fit to create a vast, smart, interdependent fighting machine.

I looked at that plume over the horizon with confidence that the finest team in the world would do its best to keep our community safe.

Our investment has paid off in security and public safety.

California's firefighters prove that working together for the betterment of the community can result in a better quality of life for everyone.

Diana Shaw, an SCV resident since 1988, is an entertainment attorney, an elected member of the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee and a founding member of Santa Clarita's Democratic Alliance for Action. Her views reflect her own and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Democratic Voices" appears Tuesdays in The Signal and rotates among several Democratic writers.


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