As I’ve been contemplating the problem of the Obion County Fire (mentioned here and here), I’ve come to the conclusion that this is ultimately a systems problem. The South Fulton Fire Department developed a system that was so untenable that a good portion of the time they refused to stick to it. In the past, they had let people slide on the annual fee and taken care of their houses anyway. In this case, they didn’t. In my mind, this selective enforcement of the rules is the biggest error they made.

I mean, the imagery of watching a house burn while protecting the house next door simply doesn’t set well. But forcing fire departments to take care of emergencies that they do not have jurisdiction over and are not being paid for isn’t right, either. Yes, the landowner said that he would pay whatever the cost. Even leaving aside the question of Free Riderism for a moment, the fire department had no way of knowing whether he would even be able to. Transplanted Lawyer and Peter mention that they could arrange something where you put a lien on the house, but as far as I know they do not presently have the power to do so. Maybe they should be given that power. Or maybe they should have a county-wide fire department.

And non-payment is a real problem. According to the County (which is not the entity running the fire department in question, so this is not an arse-covering thing), municipalities recover their fees (in addition to the annual $75 fee, you get charged $500 to get them to come out) less than half the time. That’s one of the reasons that many municipal fire departments, including South Fulton, instituted the annual fees to begin with. In order to recover costs, they add an annual fee of money they get upfront.

The problem with this arrangement is that incidents like this are entirely forseeable. Responding regardless of whether they are up to date on their dues leads people to ignore their dues. This is, of course, where the Free Rider problem comes into play. Why pay the fee if they’re going to respond anyway? As with most forms of insurance and warrantees, most people who pay in don’t get their money’s worth. Most people paying the fee won’t have a fire. Not paying the fee makes sense. This is where South Fulton’s inconsistent application of policy is so problematic.

The most obvious solution to this is to implement mandatory coverage and/or taxes, which is what most places seem to do. South Fulton does not have the ability to tax non-city residents, but Obion County could make accommodations or could start their own fire department. In fact, some tried to do just that, but the idea was shot down. The people of the county, through their representatives, chose precisely the incomplete system that let Cranick’s place burn.

There was a system in place. A bad system, in my estimation, though I am not a resident of Obion County and maybe there are good reasons for it that I am not seeing. But… they took their chances and decided that mandatory fire protection was not the way to go, and so Cranick’s house burned to the ground. South Fulton bears part of the responsibility for coming up with a system that until Cranick even they couldn’t live with. Cranick bears part of the responsibility for failing to pay his dues. Most of the responsibility, though, is the system that decided that houses burning to the ground was an acceptable outcome for the sake of lower taxes or personal choice/responsibility.


Category: Statehouse

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Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

11 Responses to Burn: A Systems Problem

  1. Peter says:

    Transplanted Lawyer and Peter mention that they could arrange something where you put a lien on the house, but as far as I know they do not presently have the power to do so.

    They do – a mechanic’s lien. Anyone who provides any sort of service to real property can get a lien to secure payment.

  2. web says:

    But forcing fire departments to take care of emergencies that they do not have jurisdiction over and are not being paid for isn’t right, either.

    Technically speaking, by enlarging their area enough to offer the “Pay $75 for coverage” plan, they have de facto made it their jurisdiction, so that argument doesn’t hold up.

    Yes, the landowner said that he would pay whatever the cost. Even leaving aside the question of Free Riderism for a moment, the fire department had no way of knowing whether he would even be able to.

    We’re talking about a decision made in minutes. Ethically, they ought to be required to err on the side of compassion.

    And non-payment is a real problem. According to the County (which is not the entity running the fire department in question, so this is not an arse-covering thing), municipalities recover their fees (in addition to the annual $75 fee, you get charged $500 to get them to come out) less than half the time. That’s one of the reasons that many municipal fire departments, including South Fulton, instituted the annual fees to begin with. In order to recover costs, they add an annual fee of money they get upfront.

    Worry about the money after the fire is out and all the lives have been saved. Seriously – they let three dogs and a cat BURN TO DEATH because someone’s $75 had gotten lost in the annual paperwork headaches?

    The problem with this arrangement is that incidents like this are entirely forseeable. Responding regardless of whether they are up to date on their dues leads people to ignore their dues.

    Not responding leads to dead people and dead animals. You can place a lien on property or a lien on insurance payout later. You can’t raise the dead.

    Most of the responsibility, though, is the system that decided that houses burning to the ground was an acceptable outcome for the sake of lower taxes or personal choice/responsibility.

    Honestly, the thing that worries me most is that the Fulton FD is apparently so populated with sick, sociopathic motherfuckers that not one of them would stand up and say “hey, save lives first, worry about the money after”?

    For my sake, I’d say that every single member of both Fulton and the rest of Obion county ought to be losing quite a bit of sleep knowing what a bunch of murdering bastards they have in their fire department. After all, by the admission of their officials, they wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help even if a human being had been trapped in that house!

  3. trumwill says:

    They do – a mechanic’s lien. Anyone who provides any sort of service to real property can get a lien to secure payment.

    Do we know that this applies to fire services? Presumably, if they could stick a lean on houses, they would have a repayment rate higher than they do.

  4. rob says:

    After the blaze, South Fulton police arrested one of Cranick’s sons, Timothy Allen Cranick, on an aggravated assault charge, according to WPSD-TV, an NBC station in Paducah, Ky.

    Police told WPSD that the younger Cranick attacked Fire Chief David Wilds at the firehouse because he was upset his father’s house was allowed to burn.

    Wilds is lucky he was up to date paying for police protection.

  5. trumwill says:

    Technically speaking, by enlarging their area enough to offer the “Pay $75 for coverage” plan, they have de facto made it their jurisdiction, so that argument doesn’t hold up.

    No, they didn’t. They offered a service. If I hire an off-duty cop from another county to do security, my neighbor’s house does not become their jurisdiction.

    If the neighborhood wanted to be in South Fulton’s jurisdiction, they almost certainly could have paid the SFFD in contract form. That wasn’t the arrangement.

    We’re talking about a decision made in minutes. Ethically, they ought to be required to err on the side of compassion.

    Their decision was to enforce a policy that had been in place for quite some time, though. They were not consistent in enforcing this policy, which is to their discredit.

    Worry about the money after the fire is out and all the lives have been saved. Seriously – they let three dogs and a cat BURN TO DEATH because someone’s $75 had gotten lost in the annual paperwork headaches?

    Had they lost the check, they would be in for a world of lawsuits. Mike Hunt pointed to this as a concern and it’s a valid one. That does not appear to be the case here.

    Not responding leads to dead people and dead animals. You can place a lien on property or a lien on insurance payout later. You can’t raise the dead.

    If there is insurance. If they can actually place the lien. They have a rather poor recovery rate, which suggests that getting paid for services rendered is a particular problem.

    Honestly, the thing that worries me most is that the Fulton FD is apparently so populated with sick, sociopathic motherfuckers that not one of them would stand up and say “hey, save lives first, worry about the money after”?

    Obion County I agree with, but how is that South Fulton’s responsibility, though? Should they be held responsible for public services to people outside their jurisdiction?

    After all, by the admission of their officials, they wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help even if a human being had been trapped in that house!

    This is where it gets dicier. When there are human lives at risk and they are in the immediate vicinity*, I do think that there ought to be a legal duty to stop and render aid. I love pets and it’s terrible that they died, but I don’t believe the same obligation applies to them.

    * – However, I don’t think they have an obligation to drive 30 miles out absent some sort of legal obligation or contract. Jurisdictions that choose not to expend the resources for police, fire, etc. should not be allowed to rely on the nearest entity that has those services. With police this is not an issue because you have a County Sheriff’s office (and other layers of law enforcement), but Obion County chose not to have a fire department and these are those consequences. As far as I am concerned, this is primarily Obion County’s failing.

  6. Meadowlark says:

    I feel what you’re saying about jurisdictions and why the FD shouldn’t let people pay on the spot, but dude THEY WERE RIGHT THERE. That’s the guts of it for me. They weren’t answering a call from 30 miles away. They were already there. If they need to draw lines, then OK. But why not draw the line at “immediate vicinity” like you do for saving lives?

  7. trumwill says:

    Yeah, okay, it would probably be better if they drew the line at “immediate vicinity.” I think what I’m mostly objection to is the notion that because they had the equipment and were nearby (by which I mean South Fulton was the nearest town to Cranick’s house) they have an obligation to help whenever it’s needed.

    This all goes to the point the SFFD needs to have a clearly outlined and properly enforced policy. If they’re going to refuse help to houses next door to covered houses, that needs to be clearly stated and they can be judged on that policy accordingly. It may also move Obion County to get their own fire department or the neighborhood to contract out the SFFD as a bloc to avoid things like this happening in the future.

    All of this being said, I still put most of the blame on Obion County for failing to look after its citizenry and/or the voting public that decided that their population having no established fire protection is okay.

  8. Kirk says:

    When I was a kid, our FD was voluntary. I read somewhere that the majority of fire departments are still voluntary.

    As I recall, the payment for their services was getting to be a fireman. They got to ride in parades, drink beer at the firehouse, and race around in loud trucks while wearing real firefighting garb.

    Totally ‘effing cool. How many people, if offered the opportunity, wouldn’t want to do that?

  9. Peter says:

    When I was a kid, our FD was voluntary. I read somewhere that the majority of fire departments are still voluntary.
    As I recall, the payment for their services was getting to be a fireman. They got to ride in parades, drink beer at the firehouse, and race around in loud trucks while wearing real firefighting garb.
    Totally ‘effing cool. How many people, if offered the opportunity, wouldn’t want to do that?

    All of Long Island uses volunteer fire departments (“tradition”) despite having a population of 2.6 million. One would think this would be less expensive than having paid countywide departments, but it isn’t. Communities get into a race to the top to have the biggest firehouses with the most modern equipment, with ludicrous results, namely massive firehouses – or fire palaces – with far more fire engines than could ever possibly be needed. Together, the Long Island departments, which as noted serve a population of 2.6 million, have more fire engines than New York City and Los Angeles combined.

    Oh, for all this, most departments still have a very hard time attracting enough volunteers. In part this is because they have a club-like atmosphere not at all welcoming to outsiders, and in part because the state’s training requirements are far too burdensome for most people.

  10. trumwill says:

    Most fire departments in Delosa are volunteer. The only exceptions are the major cities. Julianne’s father was a volunteer fireman in Phillippi. Interestingly, a whole lot of the VFD were actually cops. On one level, that’s not surprising because you have overlap in the people that want to perform public services in positions of authority and excitement. But on another level it is sort of surprising to me because if you’re a cop you already have the badge, the public profile, and so on and so a lot of things that you would think of as a draw you already have. Maybe they can’t get enough?

    Julianne’s brother Warren wanted to be a fireman back when it looked like college was a pipe dream for him. The only department in the area was the Colosse Fire Department. If Colosse is any indication, you only get to be a fireman if you go through the process of being an EMT first. So in that sense, they hire you to be an EMT and then you get to be paid to be a fireman. Warren lost interest.

    My cousins are or were firemen in another large city. They were paid, but they had jobs on the side (the oldest did sales and was so successful he quit the FD, the middle repairs windshields, the youngest did something similar to windshields but different like locksmithing). My uncle is a big fireman’s union leader and is training his youngest son to follow in his footsteps. Once you get onto the union side of things, I think you end up forgoing other jobs.

  11. trumwill says:

    On the subject, one of the local police departments put together a volunteer crew (that does actual police work including fugitive-hunting and patrols) on the basis of what Kirk is talking about. People pay for their own police training/certification and work 8-24 hours a month as cops.

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