Just in time for Christmas, we have the heart-warming story—or just plain “warming”—of the South Fulton (Tennessee) Fire Department once again standing by as someone’s home burns down. Ethics Alarms wrote about this outfit doing the same thing in 2010, following Obion County policy: pay the yearly $75 fire department fee, or be prepared to put out your own damn fires.
In 2010, it was the home of a cheapskate named Gene Cranick, who, like the people who can afford health insurance but don’t buy it anyway, figured that his community would still do the right thing if the worst happened, so he gambled to save the money. The South Fulton Fire Department did the right thing, all right, at least according to Obion County officials. They let his house go up in flames.
This time, it was mobile home owner Vicky Bell whose dumb gamble backfired. She admits that she was aware of the fee and the policy but “did not think they would ever be victims of a fire.” Oops. Her home caught fire, and she called 911. The fire department did come out, but apparently just to make sure none of her paying neighbors were in danger of burning, or perhaps to make sure Vicky really felt stupid—“I mean, the fire equipment was that close!”—as the firefighters looked on. Did they sing an ironic chorus of “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” in honor of the season? Perhaps.
The last time this happened, I wrote:
“A community’s citizens would join together and voluntarily help a neighbor save a neighbor’s home, but these trained, professional firefighters wouldn’t because of a lousy $75 bucks? Where is their kindness, where is their humanity? So they put out the fire and send a whopping bill for services later…is that really so hard to figure out? Would the South Fulton police department watch home invaders rape and kill a family that didn’t pay its police bill? Would a South Fulton lifeguard sit by and watch Cranick’s child drown because he hadn’t paid the pool fee? Would a South Fulton doctor shout taunts at Gene while he slowly died of a heart attack if he was late paying his bill? “Anybody that’s not in the city of South Fulton, it’s a service we offer, either they accept it or they don’t,” South Fulton Mayor David Crocker said. Where is this city, Hell?…..The system is so stupid as to be per se unethical….there is a reason why most municipalities abandoned private firefighting companies more than a century ago.”
The South Fulton mayor explained that if they make an exception for one house, then no one will pay the “pay-for-spray” fee. “There’s no way to go to every fire and keep up the manpower, the equipment, and just the funding for the fire department,” he told the media as Bell’s home was smoldering. “After the last situation, I would hope that everybody would be well aware of the rural fire fees.”
Well, maybe if the next time a baby gets roasted or a wheelchair-bound grandmother flame-broiled, they’ll get the point, Mayor. Keep your fingers crossed, maybe one of these will happen soon! Actually, the county’s policy is that the department will intervene if human life is in danger, whether the fee was paid or not. Why? Because that is the point at which the authorities figure (correctly) that the public will not tolerate its tough love. So it isn’t really a case of pay or be damned, is it? The real policy is “pay or else the fire department will do the least it can do without county officials being condemned by the culture, society and voters as inhuman monsters.” That makes Obion County and the town of South Fulton responsible, as well as the larger Tennessee and U.S. culture, if it continues to tolerate what happened to Cranick and Bell. The county lets houses burn because society tolerates it.
What is such a fee, anyway? It it’s a tax, then the proper remedy for non-payment is financial and legal penalties. If it’s insurance, then the proper remedy is to bill non-paying citizens whose property has to be rescued for the actual costs of the rescue, including the pro-rated salaries of the firefighters. If they don’t pay that, then confiscate the property. (Since the South Fulton firefighters still responded to Bell’s fire, no money was saved by its inaction.) Or is the $75 really just protection money, a shake-down fee for government services that ought to be provided to everyone automatically? That seems to describe what is going on in Obion County.
Ethics norms are set by what society decides is right and wrong, and what society refuses to tolerate any more becomes, by definition, wrong. Long ago most of the American culture made up its mind about the matter of fees relating to public safety, but Obion County seems to have missed the memo.
It’s time to send another copy.