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Firefighters Let House Burn Because Owner Didn't Pay Fee 2058

Dthief writes "From MSNBC: 'Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn't paid a $75 fee. Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat. "They could have been saved if they had put water on it, but they didn't do it," Cranick told MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. The fire started when the Cranicks' grandson was burning trash near the family home. As it grew out of control, the Cranicks called 911, but the fire department from the nearby city of South Fulton would not respond.'"


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Firefighters Let House Burn Because Owner Didn't Pay Fee

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  • Well Duh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <> on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:18AM (#33808674) Journal

    Uhhh, yea. That's how it works.

    Your city and county taxes pay for fire departments. If your county is too poor to pay for a fire department, you may have a volunteer fire department, or the nearest municipality may charge a fee to cover service. If you don't pay that fee, you don't get fire protection.

    It ain't rocket science. Some bubba sets his own house on fire, and then whines because the people he didn't pay, didn't come to put it out. I've lived in Tennesee: they really don't like taxes there. That's fine, but there are consequences.

    • by Space cowboy ( 13680 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:23AM (#33808788) Journal
      They turned up to stop the spread of the fire to a neighbouring property, then they stood and watched as the house burnt to the ground, killing the animals inside. The guy forgot to pay $75, offered to make good on it, and they refused, they just watched his house, his life's possessions, and his pets burn alive.

      I don't care who you are, that's callous beyond anything I wish to respect.

      • by anUnhandledException ( 1900222 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <dlareg.sivad>> on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:30AM (#33808946)

        He didn't forget to pay. He chose not to pay. He received a bill and then a phone call and was advised his home would not be protected if he didn't pay.

        No different then letting your life insurance policy lapse, then you die, and your spouse tries to collect $1 mil by paying this months premium.

        • by hibiki_r ( 649814 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @12:08PM (#33810030)

          It is quite different.

          A regular insurance policy is nothing more than a bet: You pay X per year, and in case of your death, your beneficiaries get Y back: If putting X in an investment fund would have netted you more than Y at the time of death, the insurance company wins, if Y is greater, you and your family win, so paying for coverage after you want to make a claim just doesn't work.

          Now, in a fire, the amount of money destroyed by letting any given fire run amok in an average house is always far higher than the cost of actually stopping the fire. It's not a zero sum game. If I give you, right there and then, four times as much as it costs to put out the fire, as it happens, both sides win, as they are both better off than if the value of the house just evaporates.

          So the real problem is not the fact that this guy was unwise in his choice to not pay for the fire coverage, but on the fact that there was no mechanism to allow him to make a far higher contribution on site, for a final result that was superior to every party involved.

          • by adisakp ( 705706 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @02:13PM (#33813500) Journal

            Now, in a fire, the amount of money destroyed by letting any given fire run amok in an average house is always far higher than the cost of actually stopping the fire. It's not a zero sum game. If I give you, right there and then, four times as much as it costs to put out the fire, as it happens, both sides win, as they are both better off than if the value of the house just evaporates.

            It's the exact same as insurance -- by charging a small fee per house, the fire dept is betting that only 1 house out of every couple thousand will catch on fire per year.

            If you let them pay after the fact, both sides don't win. It costs way more than $75 to put out a fire -- the cost is amortized by the fact that a fire only occurs for every couple thousand or so citizens who pay the fee. The actual cost of putting out the fire may be $100,000 or more (if you consider the cost of fire dept, vehicles, having fire fighters on standby, etc). If you allow people to pay $75 only when you need services, the fire department will incur a huge loss because it's "betting" that 1,999 out of 2,000 people won't have fires when they charge the $75 fee.

            The only way to make the cost a win for the city/fire-dept side would be to charge the person the actual cost of putting out the fire (and running the fire department / number of fires per year). This might result in a charge of $100,000 - $200,000 to the person and might actually be more than their house and possessions are worth.... and note this isn't really a win for the city - it's just break-even cost -- and that assumes you can collect the $200,000 from someone whose house just burned down because insurance doesn't pay for saved houses, only destroyed ones.

            The only practical way to do it is to enforce the fact that when someone opts out of paying for a service, they have opted out of receiving that service.

      • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:32AM (#33808994)

        I don't care who you are, that's callous beyond anything I wish to respect.

        How long do you think there would be firefighters to call if you could just pay $75 when you have to call them out because your house is on fire? That's like crashing your car into a Ferrari and _then_ offering to pay $100 for insurance because you 'forgot' to pay the premium beforehand.

        If that behaviour became the norm then no-one would pay and the next time someone's house caught fire the whole area would burn down.

      • by alta ( 1263 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:38AM (#33809156) Homepage Journal

        For those of you that say "Why didn't they put it out when the guy pleaded to pay the $75?" Sorry, that's SOP. If they agreed to this EVERYONE would fail to pay the $75/year and they'd just offer to pay after the fire dept came. You have to realize that it costs a lot more than $75 to pay for FD services. The $75 is effectively an insurance, $75 alone doesn't come anywhere NEAR the cost of putting out a single fire.

        • by rochberg ( 1444791 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @12:21PM (#33810384)

          For those of you that say "Why didn't they put it out when the guy pleaded to pay the $75?"

          First correction: He did not offer to pay $75. He offered to pay whatever the cost to put out the fire.

          If they agreed to this EVERYONE would fail to pay the $75/year and they'd just offer to pay after the fire dept came. You have to realize that it costs a lot more than $75 to pay for FD services. The $75 is effectively an insurance, $75 alone doesn't come anywhere NEAR the cost of putting out a single fire.

          You are exactly right. So clearly, just billing the $75 is not adequate. So, like you said, treat it as insurance. Consider the parallels to the medical world (at least the idealized version of it). If you have health insurance and go to the emergency room, you pay $X, which is significantly less than the actual cost of service. If you don't have insurance, you have to pay for the actual services used. So do the same thing in this situation. The invoice could be:

          • 8 firefighters, billed at $200/hour for the duration. If it takes 3 hours of work, that's $4800.
          • $5000 for use of the truck.
          • $1000 for the water.
          • $500 for the call to dispatch.
          • Grand total: $11,300

          Again, that's what the guy offered to pay...not just the $75. Basically, it comes out to skipping the $75 payment for 150 years. To me, that's plenty of incentive to pay $75 a year for guaranteed service.

          Interesting follow-on to this story: One of Cranick's relatives later went to the fire station and punched the chief [] that ordered the firefighters not to put out the fire (even though they were on the scene). He's now been charged with assault, but I know a lot of people who want to contribute to the guy's legal defense fund.

    • Counterpoint (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Pollux ( 102520 )

      If your county is too poor to pay for a fire department, you may have a volunteer fire department, or the nearest municipality may charge a fee to cover service. If you don't pay that fee, you don't get fire protection.

      But in the interest of public good, a fire that's allowed to burn out-of-control at one home could spread to another home, or to a forest, extending the initial threat from a single private residence to the general welfare of the public. If I were this man's neighbor, and the fire that the f

      • Re:Counterpoint (Score:5, Informative)

        by 0bject ( 758316 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:56AM (#33809676)
        As others have pointed out, the fire department showed up to prevent the fire from spreading to the neighbor's property. The neighbor had paid the $75.
      • Re:Counterpoint (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Wrath0fb0b ( 302444 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:58AM (#33809752)

        There is public good in not permitting a fire from growing, regardless of whether or not someone payed their municipal fees. As such, fire protection should be a public service guaranteed to all citizens, funded through taxes

        First, there are no municipal fees, this is the county we are talking about. Second, the voters of Fulton County considered this argument and decided they would rather not have yet another tax assessed on their houses when the city provides the same service for less. Maybe now they will reconsider, but there's nothing unreasonable in saying "It would cost us $200/house in taxes to set up our own fire dept but the city agreed to provide it for $75." In fact, getting fire service for $75 instead of $200 and avoiding unnecessary duplication in equipment, training and organization is an unalloyed public good.

        The wrinkle is that since the city doesn't have the authority to tax country residents outside city limits and the county cannot tax the residents and give the money to the city, it has to be organized as a voluntary subscription. So I'm not sure if your argument here is "the county should tax the residents and set up a duplicative fire dept." or "the county should be allowed to tax its residents and give the money to the city in lieu of setting up it's own fire dept". The latter makes sense, the former is total bollocks.

    • Re:Well Duh (Score:5, Insightful)

      by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:34AM (#33809070)

      Ironically, Tennessee is a state that steadfastly refuses to pass an income tax and in which any talk of raising taxes is met with crazy uproar. They had an actual riot back in 2001 when the state tried to introduce an small income tax.

      This same guy who complained that the firefighters didn't save his house would probably be the first in line to scream like a girl if anyone dared propose a tax increase to pay for a fire station.

      Once again, there is no free lunch, rednecks. If you want something, the money has to come from somewhere. If you want the government "off your back" then fine, but be prepared to fight your own damn fire.

    • Re:Well Duh (Score:5, Insightful)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:48AM (#33809440) Journal
      The tricky part here is the externalities(as usual, externalities are a bitch). So, the Cranicks don't pay, they don't get service. Simple enough. There might be some ethical objections; but the economics line up just fine.

      Similarly, letting them pay $75 at time of use is a no-go. Fighting a fire costs way more than $75. That's an insurance price, not a retail service price. If you allow people to buy insurance after they need it, you either go bankrupt or the cost of insurance ends up equaling the retail cost of service. You then lose the risk-pooling function of insurance. Now, for things as potentially valuable as houses and their contents, it would be sensible to have an actual retail price(set ahead of time, and publically known, to prevent extortion) that an uninsured person could pay to save a burning building, there are probably a fair few situations where the price of fighting the fire is lower than the cost of replacing the structure, so being able to pay a retail cost of approximately actual cost+service fee would be sensible for both householder and firefighting company.

      However, here is where things get unpleasant: Because the Cranicks didn't pay, the firefighters allowed the fire to burn merrily, growing and spreading until it hit somebody who had paid. Now, since the paying householder's property is on fire, they likely suffered some thousands or 10s of thousands in direct combustion, smoke, and water damage. They paid, and they got shitty service. Had the firefighters used the Cranicks property to fight and stop the fire, they could have saved their customers from any damage, and done a much better job of serving them, the ones who actually paid.

      Of course, if it becomes known that firefighters will fight fires around an insured property, the obvious strategy is for property owners to club together, buy insurance for 1 plot and get insurance for all for only $75/n. The fire department couldn't support itself on that. If they tried to offer two tiers, a $75 "Fires fought on your property only" and a more expensive "Fires that threaten your property fought", then this creates a perverse incentive: If I live next to a wealthy looking neighbor, I can get him to buy my fire insurance for me just by making my property more dangerous to his. Don't want to encourage that.

      This is why firefighting, like certain public health measures, is very hard to elegantly force into a market model unless you are so far in the sticks that each man really is an island. Fires spread, just like diseases. Whether or not the firefighters come to my neighbor's aid matters to me(aside from any debatable moral stuff); because the raging inferno that is his burning house just needs the wind to shift for my house to be next. Even if I've paid my fee, having thousands in water damage from the firefighters, plus smoke and any combustion that occurs before they get there isn't really satisfying. I'd really rather have them fight the fire where it starts, and never have to suffer it myself, rather than insist that everyone pay, and let pockets of fire spread until they endanger me. Same way, even if I don't give a fuck about the life of the guy making my sandwich at the deli, and I don't care how poor he is, I sure do care about what immunizations he has, and whether he can take sick days; because his germs are getting into my food supply.

      That is the real complexity of this story, in my opinion. There are some moral questions, but those are debatable, and there really should be a retail price set; but that is a bookkeeping matter; but if I were the insured householder I'd be absolutely livid about this. I paid my dues, and I get lousy service because they are trying to make a point? You could have completely protected my property; but chose to let a nearby building become a danger to it, when I pay you to protect my property? WTF?
  • by Drakkenmensch ( 1255800 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:20AM (#33808706)
    You have to pay your taxes if you want municipal services. If you wave it away claiming you don't want government interference in your life, then the firefighters will not interfere with fire burning down your house. The guy sadly got exactly what he argued for in the first place when he turned the city down.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Godai ( 104143 ) *

      Well, if you RTFA, you'd hear that he didn't not pay his taxes, he forgot to pay an annual fee. He didn't say anything about not wanting "government interference". Granted, he might be lying, but either way this seems like a pretty stupid thing to let happen. Over $75 you let a house burn down that does how many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars in damage? He's got insurance too, which kind of supports the idea that he wasn't trying to weasel out of paying for anything (if he's willing to pay insuran

      • by weiserfireman ( 917228 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:51AM (#33809556) Homepage

        There is a lot more information about this out there from other sources

        According to the Mayor of the Town involved

        1. The policy is if there is human life at risk, the department responds and rescues, but only fights the fire enough to effect the rescue
        2. This person did not "forget" to pay. The fire department called him in August to tell him that they had not received his payment and he would not receive fire protection until he did
        3. In an earlier interview, the guy said "I knew I didn't pay, but I thought they would come anyway". Now in interviews he says he forgot
        4. Fire Service should be tax based, but in Tennessee, to put a new tax in place, like a fire protection district, requires a positive vote in favor of the tax. For 20 years, this County has regularly voted against such a tax.
        5. The Community of South Fulton, who's fire department responded, is located in Kentucky. So not only do you have a city fire department responding out of their protection area, they are responding into another STATE.

  • socialism (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:20AM (#33808718)

    This is what happens when you don't have socialism.

    • Re:socialism (Score:5, Insightful)

      by RoFLKOPTr ( 1294290 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:44AM (#33809346)

      This is what happens when you don't have socialism.

      Translation: "When you don't have socialism, the prick that refuses to subscribe to a voluntary fire service from a neighboring city because he doesn't want to have to pay money for things he doesn't think he needs doesn't get fire service. When you DO have socialism, the prick is FORCED to pay for the fire service that he doesn't want." Yeah, sounds like a great plan.

      Though, to be fair, there are a few things that really ought to be socialized, fire service being one of them. I'm more using the above as a metaphor for other various government and non-government services that aren't as important to the lives of other people around you.

    • Re:socialism (Score:4, Insightful)

      by imunfair ( 877689 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @01:23PM (#33812126) Homepage

      I don't see the problem here - the guy was so cheap he didn't want to pay $6.25/month for fire department protection, so he didn't get the services. Exactly the same as getting cancer after choosing not to pay for health insurance.

      I think the problem with offering a one time fire-fighting fee of $7500 or whatever is that people would fight it in court as a decision made under duress, and might actually win.

  • by Idimmu Xul ( 204345 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:20AM (#33808720) Homepage Journal

    This one time I didn't have contents insurance and got robbed and all the insurance companies stood around doing nothing because I didn't have a policy with any of them!

  • Another win (Score:4, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <<moc.oohay> <ta> <dnaltropnidad>> on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:22AM (#33808768) Homepage Journal

    for libertarians everywhere.

  • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:26AM (#33808856) Journal

    Nuff sed.

  • yup (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nomadic ( 141991 ) <> on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:27AM (#33808890) Homepage
    In case any of you are wondering, this is exactly the reason why a lot of us detest libertarianism, and refuse to vote for Ron Paul not because they think he can't win but because they think he would ruin this country.
  • The roof, (Score:3, Funny)

    by craash420 ( 884493 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:31AM (#33808972)
    the roof, the roof is on fire.
  • by Joe The Dragon ( 967727 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:32AM (#33808992)

    What is next a cop fee and if you don't pay the cops will just stand there as you get raped as you did not pay the fee?

    fireman and cops should be payed for with taxes!

    also will the fireman pass up a burning car as they don't know if the people in the car payed?

    This what the republic want for health care but with health care buying on your own can cost $1000+ month with a big list of stuff not coved and if you are sick then it can be hard to get it at all. Some job only have that min med that cost about $700+ year + copays with $2000 MAX YEAR PAY OUT AND that is joke care.

  • by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:32AM (#33809002)

    There's a lot of libertarians here on Slashdot. Well, this is what a libertarian utopia looks like, kids. If this strikes you as unjust and cruel, you'd probably better stop listening to Glen Beck on the teevee, and start voting for candidates who believe that government is a useful thing.

    (If, on the other hand, you're happy with the outcome of this story, that's cool, you're not a hypocrite, and, we can agree to disagree.)

    As for "why not put out the fire and then bill him", the $75 fee is not to put out the fire, it's to keep the fire department running when there *isn't* a fire. You can no more pay the bill after you need the service than you can wait until after you get cancer to start paying for medical insurance. The system can't work that way.

    • Oh shut up (Score:5, Informative)

      by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @12:00PM (#33809796)

      The only thing that tires me more than a frothing libertarian is a frothing libertarian hater, of which there seem to be more than actual libertarians.

      If you knew anything about what the hell you were talking about you'd realize that libertarians aren't opposed to all government, just parts of it. As with any group of humans there's variance, some are quite moderate, some are more extreme. However you find that things like military and public safety, which fire departments are, are things they almost universally are ok with taxes paying for.

      There's a big difference between saying "Reduce or eliminate many government programs," and saying "Eliminate ALL government." That would be anarchists, not libertarians.

      Also please realize the people suggesting bill him mean "Bill him for the cost of putting out the fire." It would be a case of "Pay $75/year in insurance, or pay the full cost if there is a fire."

      That is the proper way to handle a situation like this, since fire is a public safety issue. Not putting out a fire should never be an option since the problems isn't that a house may burn down, it is that all of them may burn down. Ask London what happens when you lack proper fire control.

    • by hibiki_r ( 649814 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @12:17PM (#33810290)

      it can't if the fee for 'on the spot' payment is very low, but it could if the fee was high enough to keep the department running between fires. If the fire department takes 20K to run every month, and there's on average one fire a month, a non-subscription fee of 20K for putting out a fire without subscription would allow the fire department to run with a minimum initial investment, either by a private party or the government.

      The problem here is that there was no procedure whatsoever to deal with a non-payer whose house can be saved. A form contract in the fire truck that the owner can sign to accept some kind of lien on the property to pay for the fire extinguishing costs plus a penalty would have saved the house, taught the homeowner a lesson and made the fire department richer.

  • by pnuema ( 523776 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:33AM (#33809008)
    Your political philosophy does not work. At one time, all fire departments operated under these terms; there were no municipally supported fire companies. You know what the number one cause of fires was during those times? Fire departments. Give me some good old fashioned socialism any day. Libertarian philosophy - or as I like to call it, "Fuck you, I've got mine", has already been tried. We rejected feudalism hundreds of years ago. Why go backwards?
    • by SirWhoopass ( 108232 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @12:13PM (#33810182)

      Your argument is overly-simplistic. First off, if someone is a libertarian and is happy with this situation then they are not "morally bankrupt" at all. You assume that just because you don't like the outcome tat no one does either. A number of posters have already said they are fine with what happened.

      The bigger flaw, however, is that you automatically assume libertarian as an absolute philosophy. By that reasoning, your desire for socialism must mean that you are in favor of a government seizure of businesses, houses, property, and everything else. Few people are so obtuse.

      Most "libertarians" (including much of the "Tea Party" movement) are perfectly fine with some level of government services. Perhaps they do not like some current programs. Or proposed programs. They often take the label as an effort to distinguish themselves from conservatives and the Republican Party. While the GOP has fancied itself a "small government" party, it really is not in any practical sense. And often seems more concerned with social agendas (media censorship, abortion, homosexual rights) with which these libertarians are not interested in.

  • by oh-dark-thirty ( 1648133 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:33AM (#33809028)

    Animal cruelty charges should be brought, they allowed 4 pets to die...frankly I would be more pissed about that than losing my stuff.

  • by SlappyBastard ( 961143 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:40AM (#33809200) Homepage

    Right up until the moment they need the government. Ain't it a bitch?

    I was raised liberal in a redneck part of the country. And a lot of kids I grew up with thought it was clever to call the cops "the pigs". The first time my mom caught me pulling that shit, she pulled me aside and bitched me out, telling me, "You won't be calling a pig on the day you need a cop."

    Frankly, I like nice roads. I like a school tax that enables stores to hire cashiers who can read. I like the idea that if any brown people overthrow their government while I'm on vacation that I can go to the embassy and the Marines will fly me the fuck out of there.

    I'm a supporter of paying higher taxes -- just make sure I get some decent services to go with it.

  • by ilsaloving ( 1534307 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @11:42AM (#33809286)

    While yes it is sad that this happened to the family, I think this is a fantastic example of what happens when right wing capitalist values meet reality. They are so obsessed over the evils of socialism, how forcing people to pay for services 'used by other people' is anathema.

    So here is what happens when you don't feel you should have to put money into the collective pool for social services. Thanks but no thanks. If some relatively small taxes is the price I have to pay for this kind of peace of mind, I'll take it every time.

  • by jbssm ( 961115 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @12:04PM (#33809912)

    Even 3rd world African countries have free fire protection.

    In fact, as far has I know, the last state that asked a fee for fire protection was Rome. I think that says a lot about USA. Even more when I see so many comments here in Slashdot supporting the fire department action.

  • by sydbarrett74 ( 74307 ) <`sydbarrett74' `at' `'> on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @12:37PM (#33810832)
    I've seen a lot on here about the unconscionable conduct of the fire department (and yes, they were douche-nozzles about the whole thing). What I haven't seen is commentary on why this guy's idiot grandson was burning rubbish in the first place. Use legitimate solid-waste disposal (landfill or, better yet, recycling) but don't burn the stuff! Not only can it cause property destruction, but it's also a health hazard if plastics are being burned and people happen to inhale the noxious fumes. Too bad this poor guy had to lose his home because his grandson is a fucktard.
  • by danlip ( 737336 ) on Wednesday October 06, 2010 @12:47PM (#33811036)

    I wonder how long it will be until we hear they let someone's house burn down due to a clerical error,
    i.e. they actually paid but the computer says they didn't. Or the 911 operator types in the wrong
    address when they call. Seems sure to happen sooner or later.

"I prefer the blunted cudgels of the followers of the Serpent God." -- Sean Doran the Younger