December 2016

Keeping company with Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was a polymath known as a scientist and writer, inventor and freemason, postmaster, statesman and diplomat.  Who knew he also founded the nation's first successful property insurance company?


I didn't until I received an email out of the blue from a representative of the National Fire Heritage Center.  It operates a program entitled “The Ben Franklin Writers Award,” which recognizes individuals writing and contributing to the fire service.  One of my Northern Exposure columns for The Sacramento Bee received honorable mention recognition.


I do write about fire, particularly the science of forest fires and their effects on ecosystems.  Insurance, however, has never been my passion.  Friends say my eyes glaze over when they broach the subject: medical, household, auto…  I'm not very interested in any of it. 


But old Ben and insurance made me curious.   It didn't surprise me that Franklin cofounded the first volunteer fire department of Philadelphia.  That was in 1736, when he was 30.  He continued to write about the efficacy of avoiding fire, following his more famous ounce-of-prevention pound-of -cure philosophy.  In 1752 he and his fellow firefighters founded The Philadelphia Contributionship, bringing policyholders together to share the risks of fire.  It was modeled after the Amicable Contributionship of London, a name even an insurance cynic has to love. 


Philadelphia had a mere 15,000 residents at the time but they were protected by eight different fire companies.  Despite that, houses burned.  Philadelphians were quick to take advantage of the safety net insurance offered. The directors issued seven-year renewable term policies to subscribers, who paid a deposit refundable at the end of the seven years.  And they received a cast-iron fire mark: four hands clasping each other in support.


With this as inspiration for the National Fire Heritage award program, it's a little ironic that my column received recognition.  It focused on living in the "stupid zone," a term coined by the late Ed Quillen.  People like me, who live in the interface between towns and wildlands, should be on our own for fire protection, I argued.  And zoning officials should limit the stupidity by denying building permits in these areas.  If Quillen had his way, when a fire breaks local fire districts would build their fire lines at their boundaries, leaving the residents to defend – and pay for – their decisions.


What would Franklin have thought of Quillen's stupid zone?  At the very least, these two iconoclasts surely would have enjoyed a pint or two, discussing it though the night.


I'm glad the National Fire Heritage is calling attention to firefighters and the service they provide.  It encourages all of us to think about fire – both destructive and beneficial – and to honor old Ben while we're at it.  Thanks to him, and to Ronny J. Coleman, president of the National Fire Heritage Center.