Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dude You HAVE No Fire Protection


I think there has been some misinformation out there about this story. To my knowledge, the South Fulton, TN fire department is not privatized. However, this is a very rural area, and if they are going to provide fire protection service beyond the South Fulton community out into Obion County then they charge an additional service fee. To the best of my understanding, that is how the arrangement works. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

People from metropolitan areas need to understand that rural areas do not -- can not -- maintain services out into the hinterlands. There simply is not the tax base for it. When I lived in rural Kentucky we did not have trash service, for example. You either contracted with a private company or dealt with your household waste yourself. Some people were responsible and hauled stuff to the county dump once a month. Some burned it in backyard fire pits. Some people are assholes and dump their trash by the side of the road.

Similarly, people who live in Obion County are given the option of contracting with the (public) South Fulton fire department for their fire protection or dealing with fire protection themselves.

When you live out in the sticks that's just how it is.

Okay, I don’t mean to be flippant, but some people need to get a freaking clue:
A local neighborhood is furious after firefighters watched as an Obion County, Tennessee, home burned to the ground.

The homeowner, Gene Cranick, said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late.  They wouldn't do anything to stop his house from burning.

Each year, Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton.  But the Cranicks did not pay.

The mayor said if homeowners don't pay, they're out of luck.

This fire went on for hours because garden hoses just wouldn't put it out. It wasn't until that fire spread to a neighbor's property, that anyone would respond.

Turns out, the neighbor had paid the fee.

"I thought they'd come out and put it out, even if you hadn't paid your $75, but I was wrong," said Gene Cranick.

Yes, that was the point of the fee.

Because guess what: things like fire departments don’t grow on trees. You don’t just add water and *poof* fire trucks and trained firefighters and gear just magically appear. These things need to be paid for and maintained in advance. So they are there when you need them. If everyone waited for their homes to catch fire and then paid the fee, that would seriously muck up the system, wouldn’t it?

Now, I don’t for a minute think the fire department did the right thing here. Once Mr. Cranick said he’d “pay anything” they should have charged him double and some kind of extra service fee, got the cash upfront and then put out his house fire. Hopefully this would deter him and others like him from not having coverage.

Alternately, they could make having fire protection mandatory, like they’re doing with our health insurance coverage. Because if you make it optional and then people don’t have it when they need it and want it, they tend to whine a lot. People don’t like being forced to buy things, but Mr. Cranick might still have a house had he done so.

And then there’s this:

To give you an idea of just how intense the feelings got in this situation, soon after the fire department returned to the station, the Obion County Sheriff's Department said someone went there and assaulted one of the firefighters.

Well that’s lovely.

Look, people. Services don’t rain down out of the sky. There isn’t some great “fire protection” farm out there, just like there isn’t a “police protection tree” off in the hills. If you need the fire department or the police department, you have to pay for it. Here in Davidson County our property taxes pay for fire protection; rural areas operate a little differently but it’s the same principle.

As it happens, I know South Fulton fairly well. I used to live not too terribly far from there by rural Kentucky standards. It’s smack dab on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line, real boondocks country. We’re talking east of East Jesus. Other than some tiny little farm towns, there’s literally nothing but corn and soybean fields around there. There isn’t even a dang interstate for miles. You’re stuck in a vast expanse of farmland, and no fast way out.

This can have its charms, if you like this sort of thing; I’m not knocking it, I’m just saying, city services as we know them here in Nashville do not exist. I’m trying to be fair to Mr. Cranick; I can see how someone who lives out in the boonies like this might think fire protection is optional and perhaps not even very effective: by the time a fire truck arrives, your house might be completely gone anyway. But $75 doesn’t seem like too terribly much to pay just in case. And remember: your $75 pays to maintain a system that someone else will use.

I had to call the fire department once. It was around this time of year: fall, a breezy day, everything dry as straw. My neighbor’s lawn guy had something go wrong with the lawn mower and he was trying to fix it. Something happened and the mower coughed to life, tearing his thumb off and throwing sparks into the hedge separating our two houses. The hedge immediately caught fire. I happened to be outside at the time and heard the guy shout; I knew my hose wouldn’t reach and called 911. The fire department and ambulance came, put out the fire, found the guy’s thumb in the bushes, and packed him and his thumb off the hospital (by the way, can anyone tell me why whenever you call for an ambulance a fire truck automatically comes too?).

So as they were packing up I was chatting with one of the firefighters in my neighbor's driveway. This was right before the 2000 election and he pointed to my Gore/Lieberman campaign sign and joked, “now, if that sign was in front of this house I might not have stopped the truck!”

Ha ha that’s so fucking funny I almost forgot to laugh. Well, we see where that Bush era brand of tax cutting and Libertarian “government is the enemy” politics got us: cities like Colorado City, laying off firefighters, police officers, shutting libraries, etc.

Last week NPR talked about the national shuttering of fire stations because of budget cuts. This is irresponsible anywhere; in California -- wildfire country -- it’s insane. It's true that Gene Cranick chose not to have his fire protection, but aren't the people of these other communities really making the same choice, by not funding their fire departments? Of course they are.

This will break your heart:

That's just what led to a tragedy in San Diego earlier this summer, when relatives brought a choking 2-year-old to the fire station down their block. The station was closed that day for budget reasons. It took 9 1/2 minutes for a paramedic to arrive. The boy did not survive.

Since when did public safety become a luxury? I just don’t get it. Since when did people in San Jose or San Diego become like Tennessee’s Gene Cranick, deciding these services aren’t worth paying for until they need them?

I’m trying to get a handle on this idea that we don’t want to pay for crucial services that we aren’t personally using, like the fire department and police department or schools. Is it part of a growing national selfishness? Is it part of a national spirit or recklessness? Some delusional belief that bad stuff will never happen to us, and if it happens to someone else, so what?

I suspect it's something else. I think we've always had the "why should my money pay for so-and-so's X, Y or Z" crowd out there, but that argument used to be countered by sane people who could explain exactly why. Somehow there's a lack of rational voices stepping up at city council meetings and in the op-ed pages of their local newspaper to say hell no you can't cut the fire department budget, this stuff's important! Public safety matters! I mean how crazy is it that we've had nearly 10 years of constant fear porn about how the terrorists are wanting to kill us all yet from coast to coast we're slashing our first responders? Does this make sense to anyone?

It doesn't make sense to me.