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The truth about private fire brigades

Long ago – I think it was at primary school – I was told that in the dark days of freedom there were private fire brigades owned by insurance companies. You paid the insurance company a premium and if your house caught fire they would send their fire brigade to put it out. They knew you had paid because you put a marker on your property bearing the insurance company’s logo.

However, if your house caught fire and you had another company’s marker, or weren’t insured at all they would just stand there and let your house burn down. And that [missing step here possibly involving magic] is why we have state-owned fire brigades.

Since becoming a libertarian I have both believed this version of events and taken the view that it was probably the best arrangement available. It probably ensured the best fire-fighting at the lowest cost.

But is that true? A couple of years ago, the YouTuber, Tom Scott, repeated this story and much more recently someone commented that there was a minor discrepancy in the video. So, Scott decided to investigate. Or rather he decided to get someone else to investigate. It turned out that what generations of us have been taught is untrue. Brigades fought any fire that they found. This was partly because a fire at an uninsured property might spread to an insured one and partly because there were government rewards for showing up.

Scott, to his credit, has stopped promoting the old video and issued a correction.

I looked at his researcher’s work and found that far from there being dozens of fire brigades in London when the state took charge there was, in fact, only one. They’d all merged.

Private fire brigades fought fires at uninsured properties – even this one.

17 comments to The truth about private fire brigades

  • Johnathan Pearce

    By the way, many firefighters in the US are volunteers, such as in Tennessee.

  • Steven R

    I live in rural West-BY-GOD-Virginia. The road I live on is about two miles long. On one end is town and a VFD. On the other end is a nursing home and another VFD. I life right between the two. The two times I’ve had to call 911 someone from either VFD showed up within three minutes of calling.

    The really nice thing is since it’s an important country road between two VFDs (and between town and the nursing home), when it snows my road is a priority to be plowed.

    So at least I’ve got that going for me.

  • Mr Ed

    Another Statist lie all the way around the World before the Truth has put its boots on. Thank you for pointing this out, the lie was repeated to me by my primary school teachers many decades ago, before the Sage of Kettering spontaneously took issue with it (without combusting).

    In some parts of Suffolk, these old plaques are common in older houses, IIRC Lavenham has many of them.

    It is perhaps hard for some to imagine ‘voluntarism’ as a force. Even statist Portugal has ‘Bombeiros Voluntarios‘ Voluntary fireman, by that source around 90% of the 30,000 fireman in Portugal are volunteers.

  • Steven R

    VFDs aren’t then end all, be all of fire protection either. Part of it is people are just more disengaged these days and a lot of VFDs are having difficulty in recruiting, especially given the physical requirements and how many young people are morbidly obese. And part of it is availability. It’s one thing to answer the call if you live and work in the same town and can run to the fire station at a moment’s notice. It’s quite another if you work a couple town over and can’t just walk out the door when the call comes.

    And then there’s all the other stuff that fire departments do that VFDs don’t. Fire inspections of public buildings (not limited to government buildings but things like shopping malls and office buildings and parks and festivals and anywhere else the public can be) and fire education and being on hand for hours on end at an event just because there might be a need for them and HazMat for police calls (meth cook houses in particular). It’s one thing to say “hey Bob, how about we make sure our neighbors house doesn’t burn?” It’s a little bit different to say “hey Bob, I know it’s your day off of work and everything, but about about you spend eight hours making sure all these buildings have up to date fire extinguishers?” Then there is stuff like airport fire departments, arson investigations, SAR, setting up stuff to assist when someone is going to jump off a building, body removal, setting fire safety regulations and codes, so on and so forth.

    I do live in an area where VFDs are a thing, but I also live where there are three small cities within a 20 minute radius who can come when needed. And if one of the local factories catches fire VFDs will roll too, but to assist the professionals who will be the first on the scene.

    I realize all government is bad and evil and a blight on human civilization (with the possible exceptions of the military and courts), but of all the things government does that I would defund, the fire department ranks at the bottom of the list.

  • Paul Marks

    Good post Patrick – yes both commercial or volunteer firefighters have been smeared.

    Private (commercial and volunteer) provision was in general smeared – even in the 19th century.

    Sir Edwin Chadwick (a follower of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham) specialised, in the early 19th century, in writing reports than that in XYZ areas voluntary effort was bad and that the state “had to” take over (the unspoken assumption being that the state must improve matters), many people have tended to take Sir Edwin Chadwick’s reports at face value – but Stephen Davis and other historians have questioned them.

    There is also an influence of Germanic thought – the words “the state” started to be used as if they were almost holy, this comes from Germanic “Cameralist” and later the philosopher Hegel.

    For example, in his definition of the word “university” the British philosopher Sir William Hamilton states that “the state” creates universities – again this is part of his very definition of what a university is.

    Historically Hamilton was wrong – as universities had often been set up by the Church (rather than the state) – and there is no particular philosophical reason when either the state or the church should be the creator of universities, so it was just an ideological assumption by Sir William Hamilton.

    Hamilton’s rival J.S. Mill had a similar assumption (perhaps from reading German philosophers – or from the influence of British philosophers such as Bentham) – in “Principles of Political Economy” (1848) Mill says (almost in passing – as if no one could disagree) that a whole string of things had to be done by local government – that “everyone agrees” that this was so, and Disraeli put that into law in 1875.

    Sometimes the statism got silly – for example in 1856 as law was passed that every county in England and Wales had to have a government police force. The little rural country of Rutland (not far from me) clearly had no need for a government police force – but the statute was clear, it had to have one. So the created a “police force” of two people – the Chief Constable and one officer.

  • Ian

    I was told the same story in school, but like Tom Scott I had my doubts, never expressed. I just wonder about what would happen if you had two neighbours with fire insurance, and made the entirely rational decision not to incur the expense of insuring your own property in the middle. Wouldn’t you gain by that? I might own a high risk/value property and simply decide not to insure it, because I could see very well (with the fire plaque) that my neighbours were insured. Perhaps if the insurance status of neighbouring properties weren’t public knowledge, that might help, but it’s some version of the tragedy of the commons.

  • bobby b

    There are places in the rural US where you subscribe to a local fire service for a monthly premium.

    If you’re a subscriber, and have a fire, they show up and put it out.

    If you’re not a subscriber, they show up and put it out, and then send you a bill.

    (Here’s a good article, slightly old, about the past practices. Yes, they did stand and watch in some places as the non-client house burned. https://www.fireengineering.com/leadership/fire-subscription-service/ )

  • Peter MacFarlane

    There are lots of volunteer firefighters in rural areas, especially in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They are state-funded but the guys are volunteers; they have the advantage of being local and knowing where all the houses are – not always obvious or even discoverable without local knowledge. They also arrive fast.

  • David Roberts

    In East Sussex about 30 years ago, when my daughter’s then boy friend’s house caught fire, the volunteer firefighters arrived before the official fire brigade. There was much joshing when the official lads arrived. I think they have a similar system to the Lifeboat Service. The volunteer service is still going strong.

  • Sam Duncan

    I saw Tom Scott’s video a few weeks ago, and fair play to him for publicising what he discovered. I’m sure many would have kept it quiet, since it challenges some deeply-held prejudices. But I was always suspicious of the stories. They just don’t ring true. It may be, as Tom speculates, that rival brigades wouldn’t help each other, and stood back throwing insults at those at work, but it’s just not in human nature, or indeed good business, to do nothing.

    I looked at his researcher’s work and found that far from there being dozens of fire brigades in London when the state took charge there was, in fact, only one. They’d all merged.

    Makes sense. I’ve long suspected that the process was probably more like the consolidation of the railway companies (or the London Underground) than the state heroically stepping in to resolve a chaotic mess.

  • Kirk

    Every time I’ve ever gone to the trouble of looking into the usual classic “just so” stories I’ve been taught by “the system”, or examined the “conventional wisdom” and “what everyone knows…” about anything, what I’ve found every time is that the facts I was taught were lies, the data was misinterpreted, and that there was an agenda which went unmentioned by the parties telling the lies.

    Trust nothing you hear, and verify everything. If “everybody knows” something? Doubt it, until you’ve researched it from multiple angles and sources. If you think that your “basic facts” are irrefutable, then you’re likely almost certainly wrong. The contrarians have been right too many times to automatically dismiss what they’ve got to say, and if the “authorities” are telling you something, you can gauge the likely truth of what they’re saying by the vehemence with which they attack the people saying “t’isn’t so”.

    Case in point; everyone’s reflexive characterization of the “Prussian Rigidity” in their school systems. You go back and look at the details, and the actual facts are very different from the stereotype, and there’s very little evidence for that aspect of Prussian/German life actually coming out of those schools. In actual fact, the systems that the von Humboldt brothers set up and ran for the Prussian crown authorities were some of the most open and free-thinking in the world; something that makes sense when one looks at the dynamism of the German economy before WWI, and the much greater institutional flexibility of the German military system during both world wars. You could not have run a force whose tactics and operations were based on Auftragstaktik were the mass of the men in that force a bunch of lock-stepped petty martinets whose subordinates were afraid to disobey every single order, regardless of how well it was working.

    There are so many different shibboleths and “facts” that I was taught as a young man that have proven to be just plain wrong that I actively have to go back and re-examine nearly everything I’ve taken as ground truths over the years.

  • Vinegar Joe

    The majority of US firefighters are volunteers.


  • SteveD

    Well duh. Otherwise, the fire would spread, which I realized as soon as I heard the story as a child. And the value of the nearby properties would plummet because of the destruction.

    Same deal with most of the stories the big government fools tell us. A (very) little logic goes a long way.

  • johnd2008

    In New Zealand, most of the brigades are volunteers as there are so many communities are far apart. The only professionals are in the big towns. The firies are also first responders so if you phone for an ambulance, the fire engine is the first on the scene.They are trained to a very high level and can make the difference during the long wait until an ambulance can arrive.This again is because of the long distances involved.

  • Druid144

    I fail to see the long term viability of the insurance business. If you get your fire put out even if you haven’t paid, then why waste your money? The only long term income will be the turn out fee from the government, in which case they might as well be nationalised.

    (Sorry to be late to the party; way behind on my reading.)

  • Mr Ed

    If you get your fire put out even if you haven’t paid, then why waste your money?

    Yet the RNLI rescues people at sea (and seems to occasionally go out looking for some who have fled persecution in France) and it relies on voluntary donations.

    Being insured can bring a lot of benefits, like making getting a loan on the property easier.

  • Surellin

    If I were the Captain-General of Fire Brigade No.1, I would certainly pay Fire Brigades 2, 3 and 4 to cover my clients’ fires if necessary. And a reciprocal agreement, of course.