Monday, November 05, 2007

Do We Need To Go Back?

The very first fire fighters that we know of were in ancient Egypt and consisted of slaves running a bucket brigade.

In ancient Rome, Marcus Egnatius Rufus and later Augustus added pumps, poles, hooks, and basllistae (to tear down buildings in advance of the flames) to the basic group of slaves with buckets.

In both of these cases, they fought fires that threatened the property of their owners. Anyone else? Not their problem.

The next advancement in firefighting* came with fire insurance. Subscribers could expect the fire department to arrive and fight the fire at the insured structure. Anyone else? Not their problem.

Modern fire departments, paid for by taxes and expected to protect the property of poor as well as rich, arrived around the time of the Civil War. The idea that the poor had rights and were deserving of protection was historically novel, and required a country founded on liberty and equality to grow. Today we take it for granted that fire protection covers everyone -- rich, poor, citizen, illegal alien. There is no means testing, no mark on the front of the building declaring that it is insured and fire fighters are allowed to save it.

So, I find it shocking to discover that there were private fire fighters at the California wildfires last month. Fire fighters who fought fires and sprayed flame retardant on the homes of their subscribers, and allowed the neighbors' houses to burn.**

In Southern California, it is Firebreak Spray Systems; in Florida during the last hurricane season, it was HelpJet, which arranged evacuations to a five star resort, turning "a hurricane evacuation into a jet-setter vacation."

Soon it will be Blackwater. Private emergency response firms. While public fire departments are horribly impacted by budget cuts, the rich need not worry. The good old days of fire insurance and gangs of slaves protecting the important people while the rest of us can make do on what is left are back.

* The dogs which usually ran with the horses (not, sadly enough, shown in this photo) were rarely Dalmatians, which are too high strung for the stressful duty, and usually mongrels. They ran between the horses feet, fighting off strange dogs who might decide to harry them. Once the engine had been delivered to the fire, the horses were released and the dog would lead them away to a quiet spot a safe distance away and guard them until they were needed again. It was a good day if there was grass for the horses to graze on.

** Two Tiered System, on

Steamer Team,
Toronto fire truck, Mike's


Tabor said...

The rich will always have better health care, better security, better food. Democracy helps, but can resolve all the issues. I did not know this history of fire fighting.

Maya's Granny said...

I have no objection to the rich having better of what they can afford than the poor. But, for them to pay less in taxes so that public services are gutted and then have better emergency response services, that I object to.

J at said...

The link to alternet took me to your blogger home page??

Maya's Granny said...


Thanks for letting me know. I've fixed it.