I was privileged to serve as a 911 fire and medical dispatcher for the city of Tucson for nearly 15 years, before retiring in 2001. The city's Communications Division and, of course, the Tucson Fire Department itself are staffed by the most professional, highly trained and dedicated people you could ever hope to find.
In my experience, residents living within the Tucson City Limits could, with rare exception, count on an emergency-response time of less than five minutes. In the case of a possible structure fire, a full alarm contingent was sent. The welfare of the public always came first. If in doubt, it's better to send too much help than too little. Residents in other municipal fire districts—Flowing Wells, for example—received similar, excellent protection.
Unfortunately, it was a different story for many who resided in unincorporated areas of Pima County. Their fire protection, rather than being funded through the taxes they paid, was contracted out to a private corporation. Residents were required to sign a contract and pay annual "premiums" to the company. If they chose not to sign up, yet still needed fire service—say, for example, that a house caught fire—the company was still required by law to render assistance. But the luckless homeowner would soon receive an itemized bill—often for several thousand dollars—in the charred mailbox, demanding payment for "services rendered."
Though I don't have the hard stats, I remember that the response times in these areas were consistently slower than the Tucson Fire Department's response times. In addition, fire authorities would send the bare-minimum amount of equipment and personnel, until or unless they received confirmation that more help was needed.
In one archetypical incident several years ago, smoke was reported coming from the roof of one of the area's landmark restaurants. Since, after all, there could be any number of innocent and harmless explanations for the smoke, just one fire engine was initially dispatched. At the time (I don't know whether or not they've since changed their policy), their fire-engine crew often consisted of a single firefighter. That's right: one. Including the driver. Tucson Fire Department engines always carried a crew of four. Not surprisingly, by the time additional help arrived, it was too late to save the building.
The entire sad spectacle is captured in a photograph taken of the scene. Parked in the foreground is a solitary, lime-green fire engine, with its hapless occupant. In the background is the doomed restaurant—its roof already fully engulfed in flames.
Why the vast difference in service levels? It's very simple: Private, profit-driven companies are cost-conscious. They are responsible, first and foremost, to their shareholders. They provide the cheapest level of public safety they can get away with. The Tucson Fire Department, on the other hand, is taxpayer-funded, nonprofit and government-run. I worked for the people of Tucson—and their well-being, not some corporate bottom line, was my only concern and motivation.
Does any of this sound familiar? The next time you hear someone claim that government can't do anything that private enterprise couldn't do better, think about your fire and police departments. They're nonprofit, government-run, staffed by government employees and funded by taxpayers—and they provide every single citizen with the same excellent level of protection.
That's right, folks: They are socialist organizations. Sound "evil" to you? Would you really want profit-motivated police and fire departments, controlled by the "free market"? Of course not.
Now ... let's talk health care, shall we?
Ken Tucker is a 37-year resident of Tucson. He is one of the founders of the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association and won the 2003 Tucson Area Music Award for Acoustic Guitar.