Private firefighting company set to launch

Private firefighting company set to launch

9 February 2008

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USA — Municipal firefighters could be joined by fall’s wildfire season by at least a private company that has started operations in San Diego County, according to fire officials.

The company, Pacific Fire Guard, is believed to be the first of its kind in the county, said Chief Bill Metcalf of the North County Fire Protection District.

Its founder, Bill Kneebusch, a Cleveland-based entrepreneur, said they will deploy what he called “the Navy SEALs of firefighters” to save homes in the path of wildfires from Oakland to the Mexican border. The service would cost individual homeowners about $1,800 a year, he said, and be ready for duty by May.

Firefighters would deploy to private residences and fend off blazes with a gel-water mixture proven effective —- if expensive —- in last fall’s fires.

Metcalf said he’s also heard of a second private firefighting startup company setting up business. But while new here, the companies are not unprecedented elsewhere.

“It’s been shown that using private resources to augment local services is a very common model (nationally) that works very successfully,” Metcalf said.

Fire officials expressed mostly support for the new venture, with some reservations.

Capt. Matt Streck of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said he welcomes the additional resources the company would provide, but warned homeowners against a false sense of security.

“There’s no substitute for defensible space around your house,” he said. “My concern would be that people would think this would be a great panacea and not prepare adequately.”

Kneebusch, trained as an engineer, was consulted by at least two California fire chiefs in the creation of his business.

“I can only look at his concept and say, why not?” said George Lucia Sr., chief of the Palomar Mountain Volunteer Fire Department. While Lucia endorsed the company and consulted Kneebusch, he said he has not been directly compensated.

Kneebusch acknowledged some daunting challenges facing the startup company. First, he has no experience as a firefighter. Second, he currently has no staff. Third, his company is brand-new, with no record of success or failure.

Add to those another concern about the highly personalized service model in a manpower- and equipment-heavy field: “I don’t know how you make that work from a financial perspective,” Metcalf said.

But Kneebusch said he’s confident the company will succeed and provide a valuable service to customers. He became fascinated by the wildfire problem through visiting his brother in California, he said, and has devised many different ideas to combat them before arriving at the current business model.

In it, firefighters will spray a mixture of fire-resistant gel and water onto homes through a pressurized hose just before a wildfire roars through and remain on the properties until the threat passes.

He said he has sunk a “very, very significant” amount of his money into developing it and applying for numerous patents.

“As our name gets established and the job we do gets proven, I think we’ll be a very valued resource,” he said.

Lucia said he endorsed the company because the fire-resistant gel proved to be “a star product” in fighting the 50,000-acre Poomacha fire in October. It must be mixed with water and can be sprayed onto the perimeter of structures, vehicles and vegetation to ward off flames and heat.

Last August, Lucia’s department made the gel available to residents at cost thanks to a grant. Lucia said “numerous” homes were saved thanks to residents squirting the mixture on the perimeter of their homes shortly before the flames arrived.

Having private crews working on selected homes would ease the strain on his department, Lucia said.

“We’re always stretched thin,” he said.

But the gel has its limits for homeowners applying it themselves, said Robert Carlyle, a lifelong Palomar Mountain resident and president of the Palomar Mountain Fire Safe Council.

First, it must be applied with a hose; if utilities are shut off due to the fires, the gel can’t be used. Second, its prime effectiveness comes in the first hour of use. Over time, it loses moisture and can dry out before the fire threat has passed.

Kneebusch, in consultation with Lucia and another fire chief he declined to name, said he designed his service to address those limitations.

His firefighters would have access to about 2,000 gallons of water on each company truck and thus not rely on another water source. And his firefighters would stay at each house until the fire threat has passed, he said.

“Essentially, we’ll become an extension of you, almost like your own private fire department,” he said.

Kneebusch said he plans to hire trained firefighters looking for a second income from San Diego to Oakland and offer them a “doctor’s salary.” They’d be required to go through wildfire training once a year.

“We’re not going to have guys who were cutting grass yesterday,” he said.

A dispatcher would deploy two-person firefighting teams to houses signed up for the service, Kneebusch said. They’d spray the perimeter of each house with the gel using a high-pressure hose system that Kneebusch developed himself using knowledge gleaned by running his family’s Cleveland-based hydraulic hose and pumping business, High Production.

The company’s first two trucks are being manufactured in Cleveland now, Kneebusch said, and they’re expected to roll into California within two months. The Cleveland plant can build two of the trucks a month, he said, and expects to have 40 in place throughout Southern California by September. The company’s headquarters will be in Camarillo, Kneebusch said.

Kneebusch said he’d also be willing to contract with homeowners associations, insurance companies and even cellular phone companies to protect their towers during wildfires.

Metcalf said he won’t be surprised if more private firefighting companies start up in the near future.

“Anytime there’s a real or perceived need in the marketplace, businesses will step in to fill it,” he said.

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