Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Truth About Firefighting In Obion County

As reported around the internet yesterday, a second home in Obion County, Tennessee was allowed to burn down on Tuesday. John McQuaid at Forbes had this to say in response:
But here’s the deeper problem. Look at Mayor Crocker’s rationale for letting homes burn: you pay, you get a service. Don’t pay, you get nothing. No free riders. This is straightforward and thus appealing. But it is also misguided: it puts abstract principle over the business of governing. Lives and property are put in danger in exchange for the satisfactions of bean-counting and moralistic coercion. Is letting homes burn, and scaring non-payers, really an effective positive incentive? Fire protection isn’t like water or electricity: if you cut if off for non-payment, people don’t notice until it’s too late. If a house burns for non-payment, most will think “oh, it’ll never happen to me” and go on about their business. Instead of throwing up their hands, public officials should account for this somehow, because protecting the houses of the poor and/or irresponsible from death and destruction is a public good. It’s bad for you when your neighbor’s house goes up in flames.
In other words, people are entitled to fire protection funded by someone else.

To cut through the entitlement rhetoric, let's examine the facts:

From the 2008 Obion County Comission fire report (PDF):
On January 19, 1987, the Obion County Commission passed a resolution establishing an Obion County Fire Department, but no action was taken to implement the resolution. Therefore, Obion County has a county fire department on paper, but is unmanned, unfunded and not operational.

Because there is no operational county fire department, Obion County has missed the opportunity to actively pursue receipt of FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding.
According to survey information, over 75% of all municipal fire department’s structure calls are rural. All fire departments in Obion County charge a $500.00 fee per call in rural areas, but collections are, less than 50% and the fire departments have no way of legally collecting the charge. Therefore, the service was provided at the expense of the municipal tax payer.
Each individual municipality currently furnishes operating funds for their fire departments without assistance from the county or state.
From digitaljournal:
"According to the policy, the City of South Fulton provides rural service to residents who have paid the rural fire membership fee. This policy has been in place since 1990."
This is in reference to the prepaid $75 annual fee, not the $500 per-call fee mentioned above. The article also mentions that approximately 700 of the 900 residences not covered by municipal fire departments have opted to pay the $75 fee.

So let's review:

-The county established a fire department on paper nearly 25 years ago, but has failed to implement it, and in doing so, has missed the opportunity to have most of its firefighting operations funded by federal block grants;

-The country collects a property tax, but contributes none of it to firefighting operations;

-For 21 years, the city of South Fulton has permitted county residents with no fire service to pay a $75 fee for fire protection (probably the smallest amount any homeowner pays for firefighting service anywhere in the United States);

-Fire departments in Tennessee have no legal recourse for collecting un-reimbursed fees or firefighting expenses;

-The fire department already refused to put out one house fire earlier in the year, and the owner of the home which burned two days ago still hadn't paid the fee.

And for some strange reason, this problem is seen as the city of South Fulton's fault.

Folks, each of us pay property taxes, either because we are homeowners or because the cost is embedded in our rents. Those of us who have fire protection, police service, and other emergency services, pay for them (unless we are homeless). The situation in Obion County, Tennessee is a result of incompetent government, entitlement mentality, and a lack of individual responsibility.

Remember this whenever a "registered Republican" chastises the South Fulton Fire Department: "incompetent government", "entitlement mentality", and "lack of individual responsibility" are three things the rest of us are battling against.


  1. Probably the most concise and non-vitriolic article I've read on this so far.

    While i agree with everything you wrote, I still feel those firemen are morally bankrupt for watching the house burn. The two staples of what I believe is personal responsibility and charity. This is legally acceptable and I have no problem or intention of wanting to change that but it is still morally defunct in my view.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is they failed of living up to their moral responsibilities while in turn being completely legally responsible.

  2. Thanks for commenting!

    I see your point, but let me ask you something in return as food for thought: The municipalities have been putting themselves in debt for a fire department they can't afford, and the reason they can't afford it is because they keep fighting fires for people who don't pay for service.

    The question: Is it more ethical to a) continue putting out these fires, or b) borrow money to the point of insolvency, at which point they can no longer fight any fires or save any lives at all because they're bankrupt?

    It should be noted that this agencies' policy still mandates that fires be fought if the fire endangers people or surrounding property.

  3. Alex thanks for the reply!

    Let me start by saying i know nothing of this particular department so allow me speak generally.

    Excellent point and well taken. However, I must reject the premise of your question. Please allow me to first speak to it anyway.

    If the options were to A.) allow the homes to continue to burn or B.) borrow to insolvency. I would have to see the least ethical choice would of course be B. I say this because in the first situation you have someone paying the consequences for a choice they made and they alone accepting responsibility for a bad decision. That is of course what freedom, at least in my opinion, is all about.

    Where in choice B you have a socialized loss, because instead of the homeowner accepting responsibility for his actions you have the city, county, or municipality passing the debt onto the taxpayer and of course losing the services that are provided for said taxation. (I reject the premise of property taxation too though, ha)

    Now onto my rejection of the premise of the choices. I think these choices can be avoided all together and I believe you would of course agree with that.

    If these departments were not monopolizing the environment of fire fighting there would be no need for them to continue to borrow into insolvency or allow the homes to be destroyed.

    It is the very idea that it is governments handling of this issue that can solve the problem. I'm sure both of us have a severe problem with this.

    Beyond this there are many avenues I'm sure the cities are unwilling to consider, one of which i just listed above which is competition. They've done really well in sandy springs, Georgia with just this sort of thing.

    Then there is always the idea of cutting the spending on less needed services and redirecting the funds to firefighting. This probably being the least popular of the choices because as we all know government is classically hard to shrink. All in all it is probably the most ethical choice from the dichotomy for the city to choose, but still unethical. Kind of like the lesser of two evils is still evil.

    And as to the firefighters actions... I still can not imagine myself sitting on an engine watching someones home burn without at least attempting to help in some way. Everyone is different though and I never intend to project my values on others, but they sure are making it hard to push the case for a charitable and free society.

    Thanks for your thought provoking question!