Burn, baby, burn?

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Perhaps you saw (or heard) this news short a few weeks ago: Firefighters responding to an alarm in a rural area of Tennessee’s Obion County stood back and allowed a mobile home to burn to the ground because its owner hadn’t paid an annual $75 fee for fire protection services.

But when the fire threatened a neighboring mobile home whose owner had paid the fee, they finally put out the fire.

Now to be fair, it should be noted that the doublewide trailer home that burned down was outside the South Fulton, Tenn. city limits and therefore was not officially the responsibility of the city’s fire department.

But as is common in many rural areas, folks outside the city can pay a modest annual charge to obtain such coverage. Since Gene Cranick, the owner of the trailer, had not done so this year (he said it was an oversight), the firefighters let nature take its course — until a paying customer’s property was in danger, that is.

The mayor of the city told a reporter from the Union City Daily Messenger that the fire department couldn’t very well be expected to put out fires and allow homeowners to pay the fee afterwards. If they did, he reasoned, there would be no incentive for people to pay the fee every year and support the fire department.

I suppose he has a case. If the only people in a community who paid to support the fire department were those who had actually suffered a fire, the price would have to be far more than $75. In fact, it would have to be on the order of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

One might be tempted to compare this to the rationale behind insurance. In fact, the mayor himself did exactly that.

In speaking with the press he noted, as an analogy, that when drivers let their auto insurance policy lapse, the insurance company won’t pay for damages from an auto accident.

But there’s an essential difference between the situations, it seems to me. An insurance company can’t prevent auto accidents. It can only spread their cost among all drivers.

A fire department, in contrast, can — sometimes at least — spare a home and its contents from utter destruction. Certainly in this case it appears it could have done that. It could also possibly have saved the lives of Cranick’s three dogs and a cat, who perished in the flames.

Instead, these fire fighters became fire gawkers instead, until a paying customer was at risk. Then they acted. Not out of human decency, or out of professionalism, or out of a desire to put their life- and property-saving skills to use, but because they had a commercial obligation to do so.

It seems to me they could have justified the effort and risk of intervening to save the Cranicks’ home by saying they were preventing the fire from spreading to nearby homes. I think it would have earned them gratitude and a new paying customer for life.

The International Association of Fire Fighters, a union that represents professional fire fighters, condemned the decision to let the house burn, calling it “incredibly irresponsible” and “completely avoidable.” But they noted the fire fighters themselves were just following orders.

“Career fire fighters shouldn’t be forced to check a list before running out the door to see which homeowners have paid up. They get in their trucks and go,” said the association’s president.

The son of the destroyed home’s owner was so angry about the fire department that he went to the fire house afterwards and punched the chief, according to police. He was charged with aggravated assault.

There’s a part of me that wishes the police had arrested the fire chief as well.

What do you think? Please share your comments below.

Comments

Financial or Social Responsibility

This is a difficult topic to really dissect as from a humanitarian perspective it would be obvious to me that an effort put forth to save any that could be salvaged. As I try to imagine the scene are the firefighters sitting there while the family watches there house and pets burn alive?

On the other side we face another challenge. The simple fact is that money is needed in order to keep these public services going. While a fiscal conservative I'd rather say this should be a mandated fee rather than optional if it's required to do what's right.

Call me crazy but I almost feel like this is like denying medical care to a critically wounded person based on insurance. I just simply can't come to a clear decision on where I would stand on an issue like this.