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

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.

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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, Security, IT Employment

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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

    The logical thing that I would have done was save the house and then bill Mr. Cranick for the cost. Cost of fuel and half the cost of those firefighters' time while doing it (since they were there for the other house too).

    But I would save it.
    jbravo556
    • Complex issue

      @jbravo556

      On the one hand, standing by and watching someone's house burn down is morally questionable, and in particular if you are a firefighter.

      On the other hand, if people in a certain area organize themselves and pay for fire- and police protection etc., they can not also be responsible for an unlimited number of people/properties outside their area. It could bankrupt the people paying for the services.

      For property losses only, there is a simple solution: You get a discount on your fire insurance if you pay for fire protection. If a fire results in human casualties, the case is a lot more complex.

      I do think a society has to have a way to force people who want protection to help pay for it, otherwise the whole thing would fall apart.
      Economister
      • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

        @Economister If a firefighter died fighting that fire, who could be held liable? Could you imagine the city going bankrupt from the widow of the firefighter suing the city because he had an order to put out a fire he should have had no business fighting? The legal ramifications are definitely complex.
        MadWhiteHatter
      • Homeowner's insurance policies ...

        @Economister ... always take into account the availability of fire protection. (And, if Mr. Cranick doesn't have homeowner's insurance, it is his own damned fault!)

        The larger issue is that the fire department is made up of peope who are trained as first responders. Instead of doing their jobs, they put the public at risk by not fighting a fire that could have spread far and wide, all because Mr. Cranick didn't pay his $75.

        Hospitals routinely charge for ambulance calls - but only after the fact. There is no reason why the fire department could not have done the same.

        As for the city/county governments, they should never have allowed an opt-in/opt-out policy to govern the fire department's response to ANY emergency.
        M Wagner
      • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

        @Economister
        Wrong. Help first, then you can call yourself a society.
        jeverettk
      • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

        @Economister - ours is not a nation of morals. It's about supply-side economics and privatization.

        Wait until all services are privatized while wages and livelihoods continue to be devalued. Comparing that point in time to today, today is far more... civilized... by comparison. I never thought I'd be saying that...
        HypnoToad72
      • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

        @jeverettk - you rock!!
        HypnoToad72
      • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

        @Economister
        There was a case a couple years back in which firefighters from a city were also members of a volunteer unit for where they lived. One was injured and his insurance from his paid position did not cover him. The firefighters would in a sense be 'volunteers' at this point. Damages to the equipment, expenditures of supplies would be on their heads.

        There is a lot more involved than what appears, initially.
        Alfie AF
      • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

        @Economister

        In a civilised society, infrastructure and protection are provided by the state, not by people who are trying to earn some money.

        This type of thing doesn't really happen in the dreaded socialist and mixed economies (Australia, Europe and the rest) because we care more about people than the dollar.

        If it's not paid for out of taxes, then someone is getting rich on a protection racket.
        tonymcs@...
    • That shows a flaw in the state law

      @jbravo 556
      The law allows people to opt out of an yearly fee but does not require them to pay up per incident basis if they chose so.
      It's not so different than a medical insurance case where you pay in full to the doctor if you chose not to have insurance.
      Linux Geek
      • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

        @Linux Geek Most of the time when a person has no insurance, the doctor is not paid.
        radar_z
    • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

      @jbravo556 Exactly. I think this is the implied agreement when one counties fire crews are busy fighting brush or forest fires. A neighboring county fire crews will step in and help out, billing the county or those responsible after the fact.
      ssampier@...
    • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

      Agree, they should have saved it. But the firefighters were government bureaucrats who do what bureaucrats always do - play by the book, ignore common sense, do the least possible, ignore morality. A for-profit company would have been glad to make money off Mr. Cranick. The fire company's costs are mostly fixed. A charge, of say $30,000, would be all-profit. And a great deal for Cranick as well. Of course some lunatic legislators would try to limit the cost and end such a possibility.
      pranavb99@...
    • I'd rather see taxes go up $75 a year

      ..than watch a neighbors home burn down because he couldn't afford to pay it.

      I can't understand why there is even an option to not have fire protection. Letting someone's home burn because they didn't pay up smells of organized crime tactics.

      And once again this kind of situation puts the country's most poor at risk. Families who struggle to put food on the table for their children will feel pressure to not pay.
      Obviously it needs to be paid for but this is one of those neccesary services that should be included in taxes under the catagory of civilization.
      Tigertank
  • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

    Well stated. There are two sides to this story and not all of the details are known. In the future maybe the fire trucks should carry a release form stating that if they stop the fire and the insurance has not been paid, then the recipient of their aid is responsible for all the expenses of the fire department that were used to put out the flames, from the gas to get there to the cost of refueling the tanker truck. (Yep, water isn't free.) Sign the document and the water gets turned on. Of course, that smacks of coercion or just more big government paperwork, doesn?t it? There is just no winning is there, some one is going to find a reason to complain.
    Alex_St
    • A law is after all a law

      Shall we all execute it like these Tenn firefighers, we would not have been in the current mess.
      LBiege
      • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

        @LBiege So so true.
        dh1530
    • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

      @Alex_St The point you mentioned from the article that most are missing is the fact we don't have all the details.

      1. I believe I heard that this fire department has two full time employees and the rest are volunteer. I am sure this would effect what they can and cannot do from both a financial and a liability stand point.

      2. Why did he not pay the fee initially? Maybe he forgot, maybe he can't afford it or maybe he refused. Any of these options changes things complete. If he always paid but forgot then they should have put it out. If he couldn't afford it, why. I know that's somewhat an immoral question but if he couldn't afford it because he is spending all his money unneeded luxuries such as a new vehicle plasma TV rather than paying for fire protection that he didn't think he would need them it's his fault and his problem in my opinion. There are far to many people these days that expect society to take care of them while they don't even attempt to take care of themselves let alone do their part for society. Now if he just always refused to pay for the service let alone if he was vocal about it then once again it's his problem in my opinion.

      There are a lot of areas that don't have services such as a fire department and people don't expect one to show up. The county could add $75 to the property taxes of those the city department could cover and all is said and done but that isn't the case and property owners have made the choice to either pay or take their chances. The county could also pay the city when they responded to a fire outside the city tax roll then bill the property owner. Since they could put a tax lean on the property the would eliminate the risk the city would take on if they put out a fire then the owner refused or couldn't pay.

      Just not enough details to make an educated judgment call on this one especially since most here probably live it areas with all the services government provides.
      non-biased
  • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

    For an emergency responder to already be at the scene and refuse to help is outrageous. Luckily there were no people inside the building who died. Firefighters: if you are at a scene of a fire, put it out.
    smartin007
  • RE: If you don't pay for protection, should fire companies let your house burn down? It happened.

    You completely missed another aspect of this type of fire protection, namely there are those who do not want to have the protection.

    Years ago, I lived in Champaign, Illinois and a similar situation occurred. A funiture warehouse caught fire, and people were outraged that the Champaign fire department came out to protect adjoining properties but not fight the fire.

    It turned out the owner of the warehouse specifically did not want fire protection, since in saving the property the contents of the warehouse would become essentially worthless due to water damage, but the insurance companies would pay less than 50% of the value for damaged goods. The fire chief had been criticized for not fighting the fire, but it turned out the owner had informed the chief he would sue if the fire company did anything to stop the total loss, since it was the only way he would recoup his loss.

    The rule as the South Fulton, Tennessee is a logical one that protects against problems like the one described above. For many years much of the country had fire protection you elected to pay for, we forget we still pay for the fire protection it is just lumped into our taxes.
    oldsysprog