Monday, October 4th, 2010

Don't Forget To Pay Your Fire Department

The subscription model of government: "In this rural section of Tennessee, Gene Cranick's home caught on fire. As the Cranicks fled their home, their neighbors alerted the county's firefighters, who soon arrived at the scene. Yet when the firefighters arrived, they refused to put out the fire, saying that the family failed to pay the annual subscription fee to the fire department. Because the county's fire services for rural residences is based on household subscription fees, the firefighters, fully equipped to help the Cranicks, stood by and watched as the home burned to the ground… The fire reportedly continued 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' – only because the neighbor had paid the fee."


42 Comments / Post A Comment

Pop Socket (#187)

Rand Paul thoroughly approves.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Whoa. This is the hypothetical situation everyone brings up to show why the subscription model wouldn't work. And now it's happened. I feel weird.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Yeah, throughout the headline and the summary I had trouble believing this wasn't some sort of hypothetical. I'm still having trouble with the idea that these firefighters just stood there and watched their house burn.

HiredGoons (#603)

Sadly, I am not having trouble with it.

riggssm (#760)

Beautiful situation. I'm waiting for a lawsuit in 3, 2, 1 …

keisertroll (#1,117)

And to think Libertarians are usually the ones who COME UP with dystopian nightmares.

ericdeamer (#945)

Isn't this what they see as Utopia?

See what free loading gets you?

Don't we have liens, wage garnishment, something that can be done after the fact for this unpaid service charge, instead of letting the house burn once the fire department had responded? That's what I don't understand, it just seems retaliatory. If this family has no assets and no wages to garnish, etc. then I'd be fine with a court (who know more about the situation than I obviously do) deciding on some course of action rather than some blanket policy like they seem to have now.

Just saw your comment below about the video, which I can't watch here. Still don't think letting the house burn is good for anyone involved and this is the kind of thing that is better determined by some kind of arbitrator, but yeah, I certainly don't feel bad for the guy if he was able to pay but just didn't.

I think "being able to pay" is subjective. He obviously could have afford to come up with the $75 for the year. It just wasn't worth it, until his house caught on fire, which by the way looks like it started because he was burning shit in barrels near a shed. In fairness to the home owner, he didn't seem that outraged. He seemed like he was accepting the consequences of his choice and it was the media that was trying to make this into a social injustice story.

It definitely sucks and we should help each other out, but if people make a decision to not participate in the social contract, then why should they only reap the rewards of that contract?

It is easy to forget how different the governmental structure is along the continuum from big city to very rural. I agree with what you say about the social contract absolutely and wish more people embraced it for the good of everyone. Sometimes I just wonder (and I definitely don't know for sure) when some things are better left to the legal system. I'm not a lawyer or a fan of clogging the courts, etc. and maybe it is entirely different in rural areas, but I'd always thought this was the kind of thing county boards and such were made for. They don't happen enough to cost a ton, the rewards from the social contract would be withheld by, hopefully, logical application of laws by the community (which, now that I think about it, maybe this is a form of that–one I don't see any reason for other than spite). Just wish destruction wasn't involved, because so often it leads to even more of a drain on society, more resentment, etc. Just rambling here, sorry.

BadUncle (#153)

Jumpin Jesus. Even in the Swiss Alps, you can get a helicopter evac if you haven't paid insurance upfront. You get billed later. What is wrong with those idiots?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I'd like to know what the penalty is for a firefighter that says "Screw this, I can't sit here and watch someone's house burn down. Let's put it out." I have to assume it's quite strict, because the alternative is that we're dealing with some extraordinarily cold-hearted dudes.

LotaLota (#1,703)

This is how fire protection works in much of rural America. This isn't the first instance of a fire department monitoring a fire that it wasn't legally obligated to put out.

Folks who live outside the area where city services are provided – and residents are taxed accordingly – have the option to purchase certain services from the city. If they haven't contracted for a service, they don't get it. Long-time rural homeowners are aware of this. Recent transplants may not realize it. Anti-government types believe they're entitled to gov't services without paying for them. The city cannot afford to expand its services outside its boundaries without funds budgeted to do so, which is why they don't do a pay-when-needed service. After all, city residents don't have that option.

In earlier times, before municipal services included firefighting, city homeowners could buy firefighting service from one of many private companies that offered it. Problem was, rival companies would arrive at the scene and try to shake down the homeowner, and event prevent the contracted service provider from fighting the blaze as part of their extortion. Battles in the street between rival companies were not uncommon. Sometimes they'd actually set fires to extort payment from hapless homeowners. These were the reasons why firefighting eventually became a service provided by the government – no competition meant no fights, no extortion, no arson. It also meant paying taxes to support it.

brianvan (#149)

Hah, beat me by six minutes.

buzzorhowl (#992)

Doesn't make it any less morally wrong.

Just sayin.

Morally wrong? Hahahahahahaaaa.

LotaLota (#1,703)

Look at it from the opposite perspective: it would be equally morally wrong to provide services for free or on an as-needed basis for a select group, but not providing that option to the group that actually funds the service.

Keep in mind that when the homeowner built or bought that home in an outlying area, his property insurance company almost certainly required the homeowner to verify the availability of firefighting services before issuing the policy. A local insurance agent would have pointed out to the homeowner and the company the necessity of contracting for this service. For that matter, it's a price factor in setting property insurance premiums – the farther away a property is from a fire department, the higher the premium for fire coverage.

Odds are this homeowner either forgot to buy coverage, or – more likely – decided to game the system, confident that the fire department would fight his fire regardless of his payment status. People have played that game many times, which is why the fire departments have no choice but to stand by and let a uncovered property burn.

At this point, the homeowner can take it up with his insurance company, and explain to them why he neglected to contract for firefighting services.

In the video the guy admits to not paying on purpose with the expectation that the fire department would put out the fire. I doubt he bought it any earlier than 80's and I seriously doubt he's insured.

I hate it for the old guy, but that's the risk you take when you don't pay for services.

buzzorhowl (#992)

Letting someone's house burn down is fucked up. An easier solution than this Randian subscription model would be to go back to having a tax that pays for it. Don't you agree? Or is the Awl being infiltrated by [shudder] objectivists?

You obviously don't know much about rural areas. There is a tax for city residents. County residents can elect to pay the tax ($75 annually) or go without the service.

County officials do not impose the tax on county residents because county residents don't like paying for services they don't think they get much benefit out of; such as parks, schools, etc.

Letting someone's house burn down is fucked up, why did you do nothing to stop it?

buzzorhowl (#992)

Oh, it's not that I don't know, it's that I don't CARE. I really don't give a shit WHY things are the way they are. I think that way is wrong, and it should be changed. I don't care if a bunch of rural farmers will stamp their widdle foots and cwy if they are no longer able to opt out of taxes for firefighters. If it bothers them so much, they can move to Galt Gulch already. Besides, when they don't have to watch their house burn down while the fire department stands around with their arms folded, they'll be glad.

Your final question deserves no other respone than to point out its fatuousness. So, done and done.

brianvan (#149)

For all you young Internetters:

This instance of the story may be recent, but this is a very old tale, decades old, repeated many, many times. The "pay for your fire service" model is not uncommon in the boondocks, and this is what frequently happens when people don't pay that bill. It's a somewhat heartbreaking way to lose all your possessions, but at least no one gets hurt.

Watching everyone discover this for the first time is amusing.

Of course, the new angle to this story is: what do you do when a resident falls behind on their bills because of unemployment? That's a fairly widespread modern problem. Like such people don't already have enough problems?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

It's a somewhat heartbreaking way to lose all your possessions, but at least no one gets hurt.

This time, sure. But what if someone is trapped in the house? I don't know if there's an instance of that happening, but is there some sort of Hippocratic oath for firemen that requires them to get in there and save people that need saving, regardless of whether the homeowner is paid up?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

This is obviously a reply to brianvan's comment above. Woops.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

When the ice caps finish melting, the sea levels rise and the Gulf of Mexico starts swallowing Texas, can we drive all of the Teabaggers into the ocean and say that they refused to pay the necessary taxes to live in a non-globally-warmed world?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

No, they have guns.

r&rkd (#1,719)

Wouldn't a solution to this be to give the fire department a lien on the house with priority over all other liens? After the fire, the homeowner could then pay off the lien or the fire company would seize the house. Surely the mortgage-holding bank can't object to losing the house to the fire company rather than to the fire itself.

Is this just setting up too many transaction costs to be worth the trouble? Or is the value of the house actually less than the cost of putting it out (at least sometimes this must be true)?

This is what I was thinking, except I didn't use actual terms or much thought. I'd like to see (even just estimates) some kind of calculation on the situation.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Sure, this is not an uncommon practice in rural communities; but it's a bullshit practice, just the same, and this locality will find this loss squarely in their sphincter when the NEIGHBORING property owner sues for his or her loss based on the failure to respond to the "freeloader's" fire.

And, just generally speaking: Smoking Jesus. If there is ANY legitimate purpose for government, one beyond reproach or debate, it's to provide mechanisms for public safety that are outside either the financial or practical wherewithal of individual citizens.

America, sometimes you are so god damn clueless.

LotaLota (#1,703)

Any nearby property owner who suffered a loss as a result of the fire would take it up with his insurance company. The insurance company would cover the loss, less deductible, and could pursue action against the homeowner whose negligence (in not acquiring firefighter coverage) contributed to the damage of the nearby property. Same goes for the homeowner who had to pay the deductible – he could sue the negligent property owner, but it's probably not worth suing over a deductible, since they're usually in the few thousand dollar range.

The government body that provided the firefighting on a contractual basis would not be liable, because they aren't legally required to provide the service. That's the essential point in this story. Had the guy lived in the city, as a taxpayer his property would've automatically been entitled to protection. Since he didn't live in the city, he could only get it by buying the service from the nearest municipality. He chose not to buy it. His neighbor did, so when this fellow's home burned, the fire department arrived to monitor the situation and, if necessary, protect the property of the neighbor who'd contracted for fire protection.

It cuts both ways: if you assert the city is obligated to provide protection to everyone, then everyone is obligated to pay for it. That was this homeowner's main point: he didn't want to pay for it. He took his chance and lost the gamble – but the choice was his to make.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Respectfully, I don't fully agree with your assessment. Letting the homeowner's carrier cover the loss and subrogating to the right of the homeowner to sue the burning neighbor is certainly in play; but, really, how collectable do you think Mr. Cranick is?

Also, I thought you might point out that there are likely sovereign immunity issues protecting the municipality. Don't know TN law, but I suspect, highly, there are such issues–so, the suit would likely be predicated on a wilful and wanton misconduct, and/or recklessness theory. And, of course, I don't know (and doubt) there were similar prior episodes to qualify as "notice."

[Also: Is this TRULY a municipal service, or a contractor service? I guess I'm not real clear on that, although it sounds like a government entity.]

Nonetheless–a suit against the municipality here, for its failure to protect the property of a party who DID contract for its services, yet then failed to respond in the face of what is foreseeably high risk, is a case I'd take, and I'd shove it up their ember-strewn butts.

Beyond all this mumbo-jumbo, though, is the mere thought that elected officials parse and assess and decide this is all just fine and dandy. So maybe Mr. C is a deadbeat. So?? His fucking house is on fire, and nobody knows who's inside when the call comes.

This is the kind of crap that this country has gotten mired in debating. It's disgusting.

"This is the kind of crap that this country has gotten mired in debating. It's disgusting."

That and stupid lawsuits because people like to throw around their legal weight and act like their doing something productive by tying up tax money in legal proceedings.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

It is disgusting. It shows a pretty galling lack of compassion that we're sitting here talking about what's fair and what's not fair with regard to who gets taxed for what, when the fact is that we've got firefighters watching a guy's house burn down. Losing your house and everything in it is a high price to pay for stiffing a $75 fee. Does this guy have kids or grandkids that live in his house? Should they be homeless because their dad didn't pay $75? If you get dragged into the emergency room, the policy is to treat you first and bill you later. Why is that not the case here?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@care less: Providing a venue for recourse to a citizen whose property was destroyed by government negligence seems to me to be the exact type of thing our legal system was designed for. I gladly pay taxes for that.

It is a high price, which is probably why he should have coughed up the $75 or at least been more careful when burning stuff in his yard.

The kid scenario is completely separate. Of course it wouldn't be fair to kids, it's never fair to kids.

He'll lose a lawsuit so any attempt is only going to take away court resources from other more important cases. But this is America, he gets to try.

I'm compassionate. I feel for him and if he was in my community, I'd give him some cash and help him out. But I don't think the government was completely negligent.

And I definitely don't think I'd point to our health care system as a model for anything except dysfunction.

"Our" health care – as opposed to the indifference shown in ERs in the rest of the industrialized world.

KarenUhOh (#19)

I think lawsuits are pretty stupid myself. I work on them for a living, usually defending people who don't think they owe anyone anything, and are being sued by opportunists maybe trying to take advantage. Sometimes they sure are.

I suppose my dudgeon is pretty pointless, and I need to be brought down on this What I'd Do To Them In The Courtroom. That's more BS right there. Guilty.

The seed of it, though, is that we are actually having an argument about whether the fire department should be fighting a blaze at your house because you didn't pay 75 bucks, regardless of what a no-account jerk you may be. That makes me angry; it makes me despair.

@KarenUnOh I think you're right to some degree, the decent thing would have been if the firemen just put it out anyways. I guarantee they discussed it.

But I can't put all of the blame on some big bad municipality. The homeowner has to take quite a bit of responsibility for his decisions. I'm speculating, but based on where and how the fire started, he caused it himself as well. Society can't save you from yourself.

What's really ironic, county residents in rural areas (i.e. Obion, TN) are often very anti-government and anti-tax. I can almost guarantee you this man is a member of the tea party which is part of the reason he didn't pay the $75 in the first place.

In the rural area where I live you can't get the county residents to pay for anything; schools, public transportation, sports complexes, etc. because they see it as a violation of their right not to pay and not to participate.

Which, btw means they use a volunteer fire dept. which is mildly effective and the community has to raise money for through fish fries and bake sales.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I'm sure he's an anti-government dickhead with odious political stances who hates black people denies the holocaust beats his wife and thinks Mexican immigrants should be shot.

His fucking house is burning down. Has your home ever been on fire? My apartment building burned last year, and even with the firefighters doing everything they could, it was not the least devastating thing that's ever happened to me.

So pretend for a moment that you're a human being. Put the fire out and bill him $75 later. Hell, double it as a saving-your-ass fee, and throw in a lecture about "this is why we have taxes" for good measure. Maybe he'll take it to heart, maybe not.

But you know what's guaranteed to affirm whatever shitty feelings he has? Making him stand there with a garden hose trying to save his house.

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