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.
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