If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

Summary:According to reports, the firefighters stood there watching, as they let Mr. Cranick's house burn to the ground.

Inside the South Fulton fire department.

If you don’t pay for protection, should fire companies be allowed let your house burn down? This is the sort of mundane-yet-deep question a society has to face when it chooses to be governed, rather than function as an anarchy.

Here's the story. The city of South Fulton, Tennessee has a fire department. The county of Obion does not.

There are some people who live in Obion who do not live in South Fulton, but still want fire protection from the South Fulton FD. These people aren't citizens of South Fulton, aren't part of the tax base of South Fulton, and, frankly, aren't South Fulton's problem. And yet, they still want their homes protected.

To solve this problem, the city of South Fulton provides a for-pay service, where non-residents pay $75 a year and, in return, if there's a fire, the South Fulton fire trucks roll.

When you have governance, you get the eventual civics questions.

For example, what if Person A lives next to Person B, but only one pays his $75? If there's a fire and a truck rolls, what do the firefighters do? Do they fight both fires or let one burn?

This happened. A Mr. Gene Cranick of Obion County did not pay his $75 fee. Now, we don't know anything about Mr. Cranick. We don't know if he couldn't afford the fee, if he forgot to pay, or was simply choosing to opt out.

In any case, time passed as time always does, and one day, Mr. Cranick's home caught fire. Since he doesn't pay for the South Fulton fire service, the South Fulton fire department didn't roll. But Mr. Cranick's neighbor did subscribe to the service, so when the neighbor called, the SFFD did respond, and protected the neighbor's house.

According to reports, the firefighters stood there watching, as they let Mr. Cranick's house burn to the ground.

The story gets more complex as it was revealed that even though he hadn't paid his fire protection fee, Mr. Cranick offered essentially anything to the South Fulton Fire Department, if they would only save his home. As the story is told, Mr. Cranick was refused.

Again, we don't know the full story. We don't know if the refusal was because the on-the-scene firefighters were previously instructed not to help, whether they didn't have the right paperwork and contracts to make sure Mr. Cranick would eventually pay, or even whether Mr. Cranick was actually clear in his offer and plea or whether it was interspersed with other, less pleasant words. We just don't know.

The story itself is sad, but as a civics question, it becomes one worthy of consideration and discussion.

It's not a simple thing.

For example, if the firefighters did save Mr. Cranick's house, then wouldn't they then be showing that the fee didn't matter? Anyone would get protection, whether or not they paid.

Where would South Fulton draw the line? South Fulton covers Obion County, but then would they be expected to help in Gibson County and Dyer County as well?

What about spreading resources too thin? If trucks roll responding to citizens of other jurisdictions, what happens if there's a fire in South Fulton and the trucks aren't available?

What about personal responsibility? Should individual citizens always have a governmental safety net if they refuse to contribute their fair share? Should they ever be denied service and protection?

On the other hand, what about the guy who’s already out of work and just can’t afford the $75? If he loses his house, he most likely becomes a recipient of state aid or a potential criminal. In either case, he’ll cost society more.

And then, what about just simple neighborly decency?

The guy's frickin' house was frickin' burning down. Quite obviously, if the fire department wasn't there, they were under no obligation to roll. But they were standing right there. They had the resources, they had the ability, and they could have helped.

So what's the right choice? In my opinion, I think the fire department should have done their best to save that house, and then billed Mr. Cranick a fair amount. Since they were there responding to the neighbor, they should have helped Mr. Cranick as well.

Don't go trying to pigeonhole me as a lib or a neocon, because I'm neither. I'm a pragmatist and this is a pragmatist answer.

The simple fact is functional Americans are contributors to society. Broken Americans are drains on society and drag the rest of us down.

Mr. Cranick is now essentially homeless. We don't know if he had insurance, but if he didn't, he's likely to seek some form of public assistance, possibly try to sue South Fulton, and otherwise make a burden of himself to his fellow citizens.

You'll notice I'm not approaching this from either a moral or ethical dimension, although I'll say this: for those firefighters to just stand there and watch a man's home burn because he hadn't paid $75 was just a schmuck move.

I couldn't have done that. I've got a pretty hard heart and can often make some pretty cold decisions, but if I were part of that emergency response team, I don't care whether I'd have been paid or not, I'd have had to help save that man's home.

Not because of any religious beliefs, but just because I'm a part of a civilized society and so is he. And because I'd have wanted him to help me if I were in a similar situation.

In 1799, Patrick Henry said, "United we stand, divided we fall. Let us not split into factions which must destroy that union upon which our existence hangs."

Ya think? As a nation and as states and cities and counties and localities and citizens, it's time we started working together. It's time we stopped splitting into factions and make sure the union upon which our existence hangs remains strong.

In other words, people, cut this petty crap out and start working together!

What do you think? Would you have helped?

Topics: Government : US, Banking, CXO, Enterprise Software, Government, IT Employment, Security

About

In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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