The fires of Acirema
In most rich countries, fire departments are public utilities, paid for out of taxes, which respond to any fire in the community they serve, and allocate whatever resources are needed to put it out. Acirema, by contrast, has a bizarre patchwork system. All fire departments are private entities which charge fees for each fire they extinguish. Since the bill for putting out a major house fire is prohibitively high for the average citizen, the majority of people need special insurance policies to cover these bills, in case they ever arise. While firemen are dedicated professionals, they cannot usually afford to provide unpaid services; so they often do not respond to fires in houses whose owners lack fire insurance and are not rich enough to pay on their own to have the fires put out. The homes of such unfortunates are simply left to burn.
Some of the companies which sell these insurance policies are for-profit corporations, while others are non-profit entities; some of the latter even own their own fire departments. Either way, the cost of insurance policies is high and rapidly rising, beyond the means of many people. Most employers pay for employees' fire coverage as a job perk; this means, however, that the unemployed often have no coverage. Overall about 15% of Acireman citizens have no protection against fires. If a fire breaks out in such a person's home, either the house is left to burn down, or the fire department responds and then presents the owner with a bill which means utter financial ruin.
As a result of this bizarre system, every year many thousands of Aciremans die in house fires who would be saved if they lived in countries with conventional tax-funded fire departments serving entire communities. To make matters worse, the fire-insurance companies are notorious for unethical practices. They regularly deny policies to persons whose houses are found to contain "pre-existing fire hazards", very broadly defined, so that fire protection is unavailable to those who need it most. Even worse, when a fire does occur which would be expensive to put out, fire insurers sometimes comb the home-owner's policy for some technical error which they can use as grounds to cancel the policy even as the fire trucks are rushing to the scene. Due to this practice, called "re-ignition", even some citizens who have paid for insurance for years have watched firemen abandon their efforts half-finished, leaving their houses to burn and their families to die. Fire-control experts warn that the large number of uninsured houses makes whole Acireman cities vulnerable to catastrophic fires in the dry season, since fires left to burn in uninsured homes can spread.
President Amabo, recently elected with a large majority on a platform which emphasized reform of Acirema's fire-control system, has met with great difficulty in working toward this goal. The opposing political faction, the Nacilbupers, has vigorously denounced any move toward "socialist fire departments" such as exist in all other developed nations. A small but powerful group of legislators from Amabo's own faction, known for obscure reasons as the "azure hounds", have openly taken huge bribes from the wealthy fire-insurance companies to ensure that their role in the system is not endangered.
As a result, reform efforts have been scaled back; at best, there may be some limits placed on the practice of re-ignition, and there is still some hope for a "public fire option", a government-backed company selling coverage to those who cannot afford the private companies' premiums. Even these measures may not come into force for years. Though this means that thousands of Aciremans will continue to die needlessly in preventable fires, most political leaders agree that this is an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice to political realism.
In a recent speech, President Amabo tried to boost the morale
of his discouraged supporters. "Things could be a lot worse," he pointed out. "Our country could be running its national health system like this."