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Alaskan Fire-Fighting - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
October 9th, 2007
10:18 am

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Alaskan Fire-Fighting

Fairbanks, Alaska was one of the biggest towns in Alaska, but it still wasn’t big enough to fund its own fire-fighting department with taxes. Part of that may have had something to do with the traditional Alaskan terror of Big Gummint, but the result was the same:

If you wanted to be protected, you paid the firefighters to have your house covered. Like insurance, you paid up every month.

The men of Fairbanks were volunteer firefighters, but maintaining the fire engine and such still cost a chunk of change. As such, they needed the money to keep everything flowing. And when the houses began to burn – which, given how cold Alaska was and how much heat was needed to stay alive, was surprisingly often – the brave firefighters rode out to put down the flames.

…that is, if you’d paid up.

It was a terrible thing when someone hadn’t paid the firefighters. They couldn’t claim they didn’t know; everyone in town understood that the firefighters were pay-or-play. But there were a lot of people who figured that hell, they’d never need the firemen, and others who took shortcuts and figured that it was more important to pay some other bill that month. And just the same as everyone else, accidents happened to them.

If you had paid, they’d douse your house with water – no small trick in a place where the temperature got so cold that a cup of hot coffee would freeze into brown ice crystals when flung into mid-air. They’d put the fire out, and do their job.

If not? They’d call the cops. They’d get all the pets and the people out of the building; the volunteer firemen of Alaska were not cruel men. They’d wet the houses next to yours, making sure that the fire didn’t spread to consume all of Fairbanks.

Then they would sit down and watch your house burn.

The cops were there to protect the firemen; it wasn’t uncommon to have some furious homeowner run up and take a swing at the firemen carefully studying the blaze. And it must be tough to sit there and watch, knowing that your home was so close to being saved and yet having the whole society working against you.

But it had to be done. Because if people knew that the firemen would save them free of charge, then nobody would pay. And if people knew that you could avoid paying the firemen up until the moment that first spark hit your curtain, well, again, nobody would pay.

And if nobody paid, everyone paid. As I’ve said, those firetrucks and hoses and buildings weren’t cheap. If they let a couple of people slide, soon enough they wouldn’t be able to afford the upkeep and everyone’s houses would burn.

I imagine the firefighters had a bitter satisfaction in knowing that they were correct, which might – might – have been enough to offset the cries of wailing children and shrieking families. But it was an ugly balance: this one crying child would be many more screaming children if everyone in town realized they could cheat the firemen. Who would be left then?

There were genuine excuses, of course. Some people thought they were covered by another district. Others were poor. But again, everyone lies when their house is on fire, and how would you sort the actual hardship cases from the short-sighted folks who thought they could pull one over on you? When your bedroom is going up in ashes and smoke, every person in the world will tell you whatever they think you want to hear. And again, who wants to pay money for something they think won’t happen to them?

The fire engines didn’t come free. Someone had to pay.

Eventually, Fairbanks moved to a system where the fireman’s charge was part of the insurance that was mandated by the banks. That was probably nicer, and the firemen haven’t had to stand idle at the flames for decades now. But until the banks forced everyone to play fair, the firemen had occasional long nights of the soul.

They knew the awful truth: sometimes, to protect everything and to teach the right people the right lessons, you had to let it all burn.

(82 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

Comments
 
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From:louiseroho
Date:October 9th, 2007 02:30 pm (UTC)
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This is an incredible parable for our age.
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From:theferrett
Date:October 9th, 2007 02:31 pm (UTC)
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NOTE: All facts taken from my wife, and I may have misremembered her. If this is factually inaccurate, blame me, not her.
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From:zero_design
Date:October 9th, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
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TANSTAAFL.
"There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."

A concept that has always stuck with me... and this seems like a pretty darn good example of it in execution.
From:flense
Date:October 12th, 2007 02:35 am (UTC)
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I think there's more to it than that.
From:pi216
Date:October 9th, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC)
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There was a study (half-remembered from prosocial behavior class a couple of years ago) about parents picking up their kids from afterschool care that runs similarly to this, at least in the 'enforcement or destruction' mechanic.

"How do we deal with free-riders?" is one of the great social structure conundrums.
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From:on_reserve
Date:October 9th, 2007 05:29 pm (UTC)
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I think I read something like this also -- it had to do with how charging per minute that a parent was late for pick-up would affect/increase on-time pickups.
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From:wyrrlen
Date:October 9th, 2007 02:59 pm (UTC)
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And yet, I'm sure there are people out there that would prefer not only the pay-to-play method, but would prefer that there be multiple private firefighting companies competing for lower prices.

How dare we have government-run (socialist?) forms of police and fire protection!

This post really just makes me want to go out and argue about paying taxes and the national debt.
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From:interactiveleaf
Date:October 7th, 2010 03:57 pm (UTC)
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In America, the system once upon a time was that private firefighting companies would compete to put out burning homes, because the insurance companies paid the firefighting companies for it.
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From:nex0s
Date:October 9th, 2007 03:03 pm (UTC)
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What if you are too poor to pay the firefighters?

I'm listening to "Nickled & Dimed" from audible.com.... I know that in the greatest poverty of my life (I was homeless for awhile, and then I supported two adults on $13,000 a year while working three jobs) that there are times when there was NO way I could have paid anything.

I'm talking about the working poor. What if you make just enough to feed and house your family. What then?

I guess you get burned out of home too, huh? On top of everything else.

This whole post is very well written, but makes me incredibly sad.

N.
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From:andrewducker
Date:October 9th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
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Well, if you're renting, then your landlord would presumably cover it...
From:bonerici
Date:October 9th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
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And just the same as everyone else, "accidents" happened to them.

u were missing some punctuation
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From:blackcoat
Date:October 9th, 2007 03:16 pm (UTC)
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So are you. And you can't be bothered to use two extra letters.
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From:perich
Date:October 9th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
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This fascinates the economics nerd in my brain; I've saved it to my del.icio.us memo.
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From:beldar
Date:October 9th, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC)
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This shows the uncomfortable side of living by libertarian values, which gives me pause since that's my usual political bent. (I'd say this would be the Ayn Randian ideal, but under that philosophy the firemen would have to be paid as volunteering is for fools.)

True, no free lunch, but how do we split the check, who pays, and what do we do for those who won't (and especially those who can't) pay up? For those of us who don't live in Fairbanks, these questions are still pertinent particularly when we tackle health care issues.
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From:maniakes
Date:October 9th, 2007 04:38 pm (UTC)
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Marcus Licinius Crassus (who later was a member of the First Triumverate with Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus) employed a private fire brigade.

Rather than taking payments before the fire, they'd wait until a house caught fire, and then Crassus would buy the still-burning house (for much less than it was worth before it caught fire, but much more than it would be worth burned to the ground) and have his fire brigade extinguish it. Crassus would then have the house repaired and sold.
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From:sacramentalist
Date:October 9th, 2007 05:56 pm (UTC)
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Sounds like "fire sale" had a different meaning back in pre-imperial Rome.
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From:e_juliana
Date:October 9th, 2007 04:39 pm (UTC)
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One of my parent's friends was a volunteer chief of the fire department. I remember that sort of thing - though his district butted up against Wainwright, so the Army was quick to start dousing on their side.
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From:tashiro
Date:October 9th, 2007 05:00 pm (UTC)
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Would you believe, looking up 'Firemen' and 'Fairbanks Alaska' in Google turns the Ferret's LJ up as #5 already? I wanted to find out more about this.
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From:theferrett
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
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Wow. Who knew?
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From:supremegoddess1
Date:October 9th, 2007 05:04 pm (UTC)
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would you mind if i cross-posted this to reader's list?
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From:theferrett
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:33 pm (UTC)
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Go right ahead.
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From:xforge
Date:October 9th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
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This is exactly why I want to puke every time the President says "I will not sign off on any bill that has any new taxes in it now give me $200 billion more for my penis war."

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From:shandra
Date:October 9th, 2007 05:51 pm (UTC)
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I want to know how the police were funded. :)
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From:thegreatjohnzo
Date:October 10th, 2007 06:59 am (UTC)
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hunter gatherer society. to get your car back, it cost 3 bear pelts. rape crimes investigation cost some fresh vegetables. murder crimes required someone in the family to marry the assigned police officer. or at least date him for three weeks.

well, thats what i heard...
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From:minivet
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:07 pm (UTC)
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What a wonderful parable in support of universal single-payer health insurance.
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From:cubes
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:25 pm (UTC)
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Because if people knew that the firemen would save them free of charge, then nobody would pay. And if people knew that you could avoid paying the firemen up until the moment that first spark hit your curtain, well, again, nobody would pay.

I was a volunteer firefighter briefly, and an EMT on a volunteer rescue squad for many years. IIRC, during my time about 10% of our budget came from tax money, the rest was entirely supported by voluntary donations and fundraisers. There were 11 fire companies with several engines and support vehicles each, 5 first aid squads each with one or two ambulances and a rescue truck, a dive rescue team, fire stations, and our own state-licensed fire academy.

We never had to resort to letting houses burn, nor did we ever know whether a particular call was to a "payng customer" or not, and yet somehow the fire department has survived for many years (one company has been around since the late 1800's, several others formed in the 1920's). Some of the biggest donations we'd get after saving life, limb, and property from a fire or accident. Seems gratitude might just be as effective as fear.
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From:theferrett
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
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Perhaps. 'Course, I don't know what your local culture is like, or what the population density is in your area to be able to support such a thing. Assuming that everyone's always gonna help out is the sort of thing that works great when it does, but if not then everyone suffers.

In other words, I'm sure it works for you. But in Fairbanks? Maybe, maybe not. And assuming all cultures meet the same challenges in the same way is the sort of thinking that can occasionally blow up in quite ugly ways.
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From:dnwq
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
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A more current example.

Knight Support spokesman John Kagaruki insists that lives will not be put at risk due to their business tactics.

"Human lives come first," he says, "but otherwise, if the person will not sign we may watch a building burn."
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From:phillipalden
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:32 pm (UTC)
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A modern fire engine costs $1.5M to $2M

I cannot believe it's easy to come up with 2 million dollars.
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From:orts
Date:October 10th, 2007 01:42 pm (UTC)
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Five hundred billion dollars, on the other hand, is small change.
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From:bradhicks
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:35 pm (UTC)
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Feh. It's "moral hazard" all over again. If "sometimes, to protect everything and to teach people the right lessons, you had to let it all burn" then why did not the fuzzy headed liberals, but the monied and powerful elite, make them change it? In case the answer isn't obvious, it's because (especially in a city in a place like Alaska) this "contain the fire" thing doesn't work, you can't know in advance whether it's going to work or not, and there's no tolerance for error -- fail to contain the fire and your subscriber's house burns, too. And potentially the whole town, because now you've got the bone-dry cinders of two houses (and the flames from of all the fuel they had stored) shooting up into the air.

I'll go further than that. The other reason we have almost no city-wide fires (none at all except in places prone to both severe drought and to planting eucalyptus trees right next to buildings with wooden roofs) isn't just that we put out the poor people's fires, too. It's that we taxed the rich and the upper middle class enough that firefighters have time on their hands, in most cities, to spend on fire safety education, voluntary fire preparation inspections, and other fire prevention efforts. And among the people who benefit the most from this are the country's wealth and its managerial class, who now have customers who can buy their products instead of having to rebuild their houses every so often, who now have employees who don't miss work because they have to deal with the aftermath of a house fire, and so forth.

Here in St. Louis, the local newspaper likes to complain that we've "gold plated" our local and regional fire departments ... 8 months of the year. During the 4 months of the year that desperately poor people have to throw fire safety out the window and heat their houses with whatever is available because one or both utilities are turned off, even the Post-Dispatch asks if maybe we shouldn't be paying the downtown fire department even more money for fire prevention, if we shouldn't be raising taxes and funneling more money to helping those desperate families heat their houses in safer ways.

I live in a city that burned completely to the ground three times in its first 100 years; once from an Indian attack, but twice from accidents in the warehouse district. By the time of that third fire, we had fire insurance brigades that were paid for by the insurance companies, like the ones you describe; you can still see the brass logos of their original fire protection insurance policies on some of the older residential buildings. Like the people in Fairbanks, we smartened up and replaced it with "socialized fire protection" after the 3rd out of control fire, and here a hundred years and more after we made that decision, the question in nearly all voters' minds (including the wealthy) is not, "how do we privatize our fire departments in order to make them more efficient according to Libertarian theories," it's "are we 100% sure we're paying enough taxes to the fire department, or would we really all be safer if we raised just a smidgen more to spend on fire prevention?"
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From:theferrett
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:38 pm (UTC)
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If "sometimes, to protect everything and to teach people the right lessons, you had to let it all burn" then why did not the fuzzy headed liberals, but the monied and powerful elite, make them change it?

This is Alaska.

What liberals?
[User Picture]
From:cuprohastes
Date:October 9th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
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I know the feeling. I work for Social Security in the UK, and every single day I have this basic conversation:

"I want money"
OK, we'll do some paperwork and check to see how much you should get.
"No, I want money now"
No, you have to do the paperwork.
"But I haven't got any money. You owe me money"
We'll pay you anything you're due when you've done the paperwork.
"Give me money now. IF you don't give me money, I won't do the paperwork"
No, you do the paperwork, we give you money.
"That's not fair. Even though I'm ringing from a mobile phone, I'm cliaming I can't afford to eat or pay for electricity or gas. THe law says you HAVE to pay me. You've GOT to."
No, the law says there's a minimum you need to live on, but we don't have to pay it to you if you don't do the paperwork.
"Gimme money."
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 10th, 2007 12:57 am (UTC)
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I'm instantly reminded of Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork Fire Brigade and the inherent badness of the idea of paying men for the amount of fires they put out.


-Lucas
lokified.blogspot.com
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From:ewin
Date:October 10th, 2007 01:09 am (UTC)
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Scope of Service, she is a bitch of the nine hells.
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From:cathy_n
Date:October 10th, 2007 07:29 pm (UTC)

Maybe we should do the same for parking?

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The hidden costs to everyone for "free" parking. If some parking is free, nobody will pay any amount for parking. They will just cruise the block 100 times waiting for a free spot while the not-free lots stand empty.

http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2007/10/01/parking/

From the article:

"Our story begins in the 1920s with the birth of a piece of esoteric regulation, the "minimum parking requirement." Before parking meters and residential parking permits, cities feared that they were running out of street parking. So municipalities began ordering businesses to provide parking and wrote zoning restrictions to ensure it. Columbus, Ohio, was first, requiring apartment buildings in 1923 to provide parking. In 1939, Fresno, Calif., decreed that hospitals and hotels must do the same. By the '50s, the parking trend exploded. In 1946, only 17 percent of cities had parking requirements. Five years later, 71 percent did."

...snip...

"For his part, Shoup wants street parking to be priced at a market rate, so it can compete with lots and garages. Raising rates in the most congested areas will free up space curbside by inspiring thrifty drivers to park farther from their destinations, or -- heaven forefend! -- take the bus or train. To be politically feasible, he wants to see cities use the money raised by those increased fees to improve the city streets where they're collected, cleaning up graffiti or street cleaning, so shoppers and businesses can see the benefits of where that money is going."

...snip...

"Recently, the city managed to subvert the parking code bible and add a 20-screen movie theater with 4,200 seats without adding more than a thousand parking spaces. Even before the cinema opened, on Friday and Saturday nights, drivers trying to go to restaurants and clubs circled the block searching for the elusive free street spaces, creating gridlock. Meanwhile, parking lots a few blocks away stood half empty. "We had plenty of parking," explains Dan Zack, downtown development coordinator for Redwood City. "What we had was a management problem, not a supply problem.""

...snip...

"To prevent drivers from circling, Redwood City raised the prices of parking on the street from zero in the evening to 75 cents an hour on the main drag, and 50 cents and 25 cents in the surrounding streets until 8 p.m. Even farther from the center of the action, parking is still free on the street. Drivers searching for a good deal quickly caught on and went to the surrounding streets, cheaper parking lots and garages, which can be free with validation. Other cities, such as Ventura and Glendale, both in Southern California, are adopting similar schemes. "

"In Brooklyn, N.Y., transportation advocates are pushing for the city to consider doing the same. A survey by Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for bicyclists, walkers and public-transit users in New York City, found that 45 percent of drivers surveyed in Park Slope were just cruising looking for parking. And street parking was so overcrowded that one in six cars on the main drag, Seventh Avenue, was parked illegally. Only increases in the price of street parking can fix the problem, they contend."

...snip...

"But it's tough to convince drivers to accept that they might have to pay for something that they're used to thinking that they get for nothing, even if they're really paying for it in all kinds of invisible ways. Ever since their first game of Monopoly, Americans have been conditioned to think that parking is free. "I think that we've done things wrong for so long that it takes a while to break all our bad habits of wanting to be freeloaders," says Shoup. "We know that land is fabulously valuable and housing is expensive, but somehow we think we can park for free. We can't.""
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From:swashbucklr
Date:October 8th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)

Re: Maybe we should do the same for parking?

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Shoup's book is fascinating. I wrote a paper on it last year.

Here's another good article on the subject.

http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/010266.html
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From:ciphergoth
Date:October 7th, 2010 03:26 pm (UTC)
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Seems pretty obvious that just paying for it out of taxes works better for everyone.
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