Fire Protection by Subscription?

For those that know me best, it should be no surprise that I am a long-time comic book reader.  Now stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this.  Back in ’94, Marvel Comics debuted its ‘2099’ universe, showing future incarnations of some of the day’s more popular character, such as Spiderman, Punisher, Ghost Rider, and the X-Men.  It’s your general cyberpunk dystopia, but full of interesting characters, and launched the careers of many great writers and artists.  One of the features in this universe was the ‘Public Eye,’ the police force of the future US.  For the Public Eye corporation, your protection was predicated on your subscription to their services.  If you weren’t up to date, you were unprotected.  Sorry.  Lots of moral/ethical dilemmas, etc. etc., you can guess.

Little did I know there was a version of that today.  And in my naivete, I was surprised at this.  I wonder how far this standard is widespread.

In Obion County, northwest Tennessee, there is no fire department.  Doesn’t exist.  There are eight municipalities in the county, three of which charge a subscription for fire services, including South Fulton.  For a $75 yearly fee, rural residents of Obion get the fire protection reserved for citizens of South Fulton.  But for the Cranicks, their lapse in payment led to something unbelievable:

A local neighborhood is furious after firefighters watched as an Obion County, Tennessee, home burned to the ground.

The homeowner, Gene Cranick, said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late.  They wouldn’t do anything to stop his house from burning.

The mayor said if homeowners don’t pay, they’re out of luck.

This fire went on for hours because garden hoses just wouldn’t put it out. It wasn’t until that fire spread to a neighbor’s property, that anyone would respond.  Turns out, the neighbor had paid the fee.

“I thought they’d come out and put it out, even if you hadn’t paid your $75, but I was wrong,” said Gene Cranick.  Because of that, not much is left of Cranick’s house.  They called 911 several times, and initially the South Fulton Fire Department would not come.  The Cranicks told 9-1-1 they would pay firefighters, whatever the cost, to stop the fire before it spread to their house.

So the South Fulton fire department put out the neighbor’s fire, and left the Cranick house still burning.  Personally, I cannot fathom the lack of compassion and care to walk away from a neighbor watching their house, and their history, burn up before their eyes.  My personal feelings are summed up nicely by Aramis, so I’ll defer to him on this one.  It’s absolutely galling.  It was for one of Mr. Cranick’s sons, who later cold-cocked the fire chief at the station.

But that’s neither here nor there.  It’s easy to get emotional over; I certainly did.  But what we have here is another one of those moral and ethical dilemmas, with a root in public finance.  South Fulton FD pleads an inability to fund fire protection for areas outside the city, hence the reasoning behind the $75 fee for non-residents.  But I really stagger to think a of a more poorly-considered policy than letting fires burn unchecked in their neck of the woods.  Last time I checked, fire does not obey borders and property lines.

Furthermore, do they take an emergency call, wait to verify the subscription status of the caller, and only then send help?  Does that delay have effects?  Furthermore, how much are the South Fulton residents paying for their fire protection?  Are the non-residents subsidizing the protection of people in the city?  What about saving lives- do they ascertain if people are in immediate risk, and decide on a response after that?

So, so many questions, and I’m really shocked that a department would put themselves at such high potential for liability with this policy.  I would also like to know what the policies are, in Tennessee and elsewhere, for funding rural fire departments.  How many other places have to deal with this kind of scheme?  All I know is, taxes paid or not, I can depend on my police, fire and military to protect me and mine.

Others don’t share the sympathy, and compare the Cranicks to ‘jerks, freeloaders and ingrates’ for the mortal sin of reaching out and asking for help.  It’s the natural response to people in dire need, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to condemn someone with a burning house over their reaction.  National Review sees otherwise:

These free-riders have no more right to South Fulton’s firefighting services than people in Muleshoe, Texas, have to those of NYPD detectives.

Let’s not talk about geographical proximity, preexisting arrangements, or cultural and social ties that bind tightly.  Are you going to tell me that the SFFD can’t arrange a means to bill a homeowner after a fire for the services rendered?  Please make some kind of arrangement, or demand further funds from the Legislature, because this is no way for a first-world country to treat its citizens.


2 thoughts on “Fire Protection by Subscription?

  1. A better answer would be for the citizens of Obion to tax themselves to support the neighboring fire department so they would all be protected. I bet the cost would be far less than $75 per home. At some point, folks have to take responsibility for themselves, whether that’s collectively to provide for fire protection or individually. While its a sad case, it was just a matter of time that this happened. I’ll bet the rest of the citizens ponied up their $75 pretty quickly.

  2. I don’t know of other fire departments doing this, but in NYC Department of Education there is something going on in the same vein. Schools don’t automatically just get support from the district offices. Now, we can choose which support organization we want in our school. (I use we loosely because principals make this choice, not teachers.) Different organizations cost different amounts of money, and if your school selects an organization that isn’t so good, then it is the school’s fault. The school can only change at the end of the school year. It is really crazy. No school goes without a support organization, so it is not as drastic as this example, but the whole idea of public service being doled out on a fee basis seems like bad public policy to me.

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