Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Letting it burn

By Michael O'Hare

Obion County, Tennessee is a rural patch with eight towns in it, each of which has a fire department supported by local taxes.  If you live in one of these towns, and your house catches fire, your neighbors put out the fire through the agency of the fire department.

Some people prefer to live out in the unincorporated areas, perhaps so they can shoot things for dinner, perhaps so they don’t have to listen to the neighbors’ kids practicing the trombone, perhaps because they have a horse or two.  They give up various things that are affordable only in cities, like sewers, cable TV, a quart of milk you can walk to, and quick ambulance service, and pay less taxes. They also pay more for fire insurance than people who live in the district of a fire department.

Most rural areas in my experience have a volunteer fire department which pays no wages and raises money for equipment with bake sales and a barbecue on the 4th of July.  They will try to save your house whether you came to the barbecue or not, and often they provide a big piece of social capital for the community independent of fires.  Obion County has a system whereby rural residents can pay an annual fee of $75 for fire service from the nearest town.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this so far, any more than there’s a moral affront when someone who owns his home free and clear chooses to underinsure it, whatever we think of the judgment of the homeowner. Obion County might or might not be better off with a county fire department; it’s up to the voters to decide.  And deciding to have one or not isn’t even a liberal or conservative decision; it’s an economic benefit-cost analysis.

On September 29, the firefighters of South Fulton watched the Cranicks’ house burn to the ground (with his dogs and cat in it, can you believe?) because the Cranicks hadn’t paid their $75 subscription fee.  The internets and MSNBC have been buzzing with outrage, many commentators trying to make this some sort of symbol of conservative, Randian, or small-government philosophical chickens coming home to roost.

There is an outrage here but it has nothing to do with Obion County’s choice of public and private services, nor the idea of selling fire services by subscription, nor political philosophy.  It has to do with the fire department’s wasteful and reckless response to a house on fire, justified by a vengeful and stupid small-mindedness…OK, and a complete collapse of community obligation.  The proper response to the situation was to put out the fire, and then to bill Mr. Cranick for the service he asked for on the spot and said he was willing to pay for.  Period.  Put out the fire; who pays for what, how, is a decision that can be made later.  The $75 fee is an insurance premium, but against the cost of spraying water, not against the stupid and pointless loss of a whole house.  At the cost of perhaps $200,000 in value destroyed, the stupidity of the firefighters saved perhaps $2000 in labor and equipment wear and tear, all to teach a wrong lesson.  Notice:  if no-one in the county paid the fire charge up front, and the city charged everyone who had a fire for putting it out (with a lien on the house if necessary) the city fisc would be exactly as well off as it is now.

I think the Cranicks’ insurance company may have a cause of action against the city for wilfully refusing to abate an imminent hazard; I certainly hope it does.

If you do something stupid and get stuck on a mountain, we don’t let you die there; we rescue you if possible and then send you a bill for the search.  If a house is on fire, the proper action for a fire crew is to minimize the loss (put it out) and arrange who pays for the service later.  If the political leadership of Obion County is still trying to explain that this episode went down properly, they have a piece missing and not just a screw loose.

Cross-posted from The Reality-Based Community.