News of a home burning down in rural Obion County, Tennessee because the neighboring fire department refused assistance to the owners who hadn't paid the $75 fee for the coverage, has spread like, well, wildfire.
The incident has caused a raging debate, and has even left one talking head warning this is an example of "Tea Party" America. (See the original story and video from the scene.)
So is this an apocalyptic glimpse into the future? Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it an example of ballooning budgets and taxes that can't provide emergency services?
Let's take a look, and then you'll get a chance to let us know what you think using The Blaze's new voting feature.
Last week, Gene Cranick's house caught on fire. He called 911 and asked for help, but firefighters from the neighboring town of South Fulton said they could not put it out because the Cranicks had not paid the $75 required fee for such service. When fire fighters did arrive, they still would not stop the blaze, but did step in to some degree when the fire began spreading to a neighboring house that had paid for the protection.
"Oy, this is bad for libertarians," wrote Danial Foster on National Review's blog "The Corner." He added:
I have no problem with this kind of opt-in government in principle — especially in rural areas where individual need for government services and available infrastructure vary so widely. But forget the politics: what moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground when 1) they have already responded to the scene; 2) they have the means to stop it ready at hand; 3) they have a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their trouble?
And then answers his own question:
The counterargument is, of course, that this kind of system only works if there are consequences for opting out. For the firefighters to have put out the blaze would have opened up a big moral hazard and generated a bunch of future free-riding — a lot like how the ban on denying coverage based on preexisting conditions, paired with penalties under the individual mandate that are lower than the going premiums, would lead to folks waiting until they got sick to buy insurance.
Remember the insurance analogy -- we'll come back to it.
Foster's post started quite the debate at National Review headquarters. His colleagues weighed in.
Kevin Williamson gave a little more background on South Fulton's policy and argued that the $75 fee is actually an example of expanded service:
Dan, you are 100 percent wrong.
The situation is this: The city of South Fulton’s fire department, until a few years ago, would not respond to any fires outside of the city limits — which is to say, the city limited its jurisdiction to the city itself, and to city taxpayers. A reasonable position. Then, a few years ago, a fire broke out in a rural area that was not covered by the city fire department, and the city authorities felt bad about not being able to do anything to help. So they began to offer an opt-in service, for the very reasonable price of $75 a year. Which is to say: They greatly expanded the range of services they offer. The rural homeowners were, collectively, better off, rather than worse off. Before the opt-in program, they had no access to a fire department. Now they do.
NR's Jonah Goldberg then advocated for a middle ground, and suggested that this may save more houses in the long run:
Why isn’t there a happy middle ground? You can pay 75 bucks upfront or, if you wait until your house is on fire, it will cost you, I dunno, $10,000? Lots of things work like this.
Here’s the more important part of the story, letting the house burn — while, I admit sad — will probably save more houses over the long haul. I know that if I opted out of the program before, I would be more likely to opt-in now.
Finally, NR's John Derbishyre said the issue boils down to being "crunchy" or "soggy":
I am entirely with the South Fulton fire department here. In the terms of Nico Colchester’s great 1996 essay, they are being crunchy rather than soggy:
"Crunchy systems are those in which small changes have big effects leaving those affected by them in no doubt whether they are up or down, rich or broke, winning or losing, dead or alive. . . . Sogginess is comfortable uncertainty. . . . The richer a society becomes, the soggier its systems get. Light-switches no longer turn on or off: they dim."
One of the duties of conservatives in this soggy fallen world is to stand up for crunchiness. For the fire department to have extinguished the Cranicks’ fire would have been soggy, even aside from the considerable degree of sogginess it would have left on the property.
But "crunchy" wouldn't do for Keith Olbermann -- it's just too hard. When he got a hold of the story, he used it to warn the country that the incident is an example of Tea Party America:
Blogger Paul Hogarth agrees: "This story brings to light the horrific consequences of what would happen if we let basic government decisions be made by right-wing ideologues."
Joshua Holland at AlterNet puts it another way: "Call it Ayn Rand's stark, anti-governmental dream come true."
The Guardian's Michael Tomasky won't go that far -- but almost: "I won't quite go the full nine yards of saying that this is what life would be like in tea party America. Not quite. But I'll go 4.5 yards for sure. Remember, this country (like pretty much all countries) used to have private fire departments. They didn't work well."
That brings us back to the insurance analogy. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution's John Bookman agrees that the fire department's action seem a little "callous." To him, however, it's not so much a picture of Tea Party America as it is of Obamacare America:
The situation is in many ways analogous to the health care debate, where folks skate without insurance until something goes wrong and they show up in an emergency room, where the law says they have to be treated.
Do we instead do what the South Fulton fire chief did, refusing available treatment to fellow human beings even in life-threatening situations, because they gambled and didn’t buy insurance?
Bookman eventually answers the question in the negative, suggesting an individual mandate for fire protection. That way, there can be no losers.
Mandate or not, Glenn Beck argues that one cannot base his conclusions on feelings alone. The reality is that if people are not willing to pay, but expect the fire department to fight their fires anyway, there eventually would be no fire department at all. "If [fire departments] did that, would anyone pay their $75 dollars?" If the fire department makes one exception here, then another, and yet another, where will the money come from?
So now it's your turn. You've heard and read what others are saying, but what do you think? Besides commenting, there's another way you can let us know. We're using this story to introduce a new feature on The Blaze: voting.
Below is box that allows you to contribute to a poll. Simply click the circle that best describes your thoughts. After voting, add your comments explaining why.
WPSD-TV, which first brought us the story, has a follow-up to its original report:
South Fulton police arrested one of Gene Cranick's sons, Timothy Allen Cranick, on an aggravated assault charge. When officers arrived at the firehouse Wednesday, South Fulton Fire Chief David Wilds was in an ambulance receiving medical treatment.
More importantly, the station interviews Union City Fire Chief Kelly Edmison (a neighboring city that also uses the pay-for-service model), who is defending the firefighters in South Fulton.
Edmison explained that it is the county, not the cities, that is at fault for not providing fire service, and that individual departments cannot be faulted (or held liable) for the county's decision:
"If somebody is trapped in the house we're going to go because life safety is number one but we can't give the service away," Edmison said. "It's not South Fulton's problem. It's not Union City's problem. It's the county's problem. There is no county fire department." ...
"If we just waited to charge when we went out there, you'd be working on a per-call basis," he said. "With no more calls than there are, the money wouldn't be there in a sufficient source to buy the equipment you need." ...
"It's like car insurance," Edmison said. "I wish I could wait until I have an accident until I pay my premium on my car insurance, but it doesn't work that way. So why should the fire service be looked at anything different?"
Edmison reiterated that if someone's life is at risk, the firefighters will intervene. However, that was not an issue in Cranick's fire: