Here’s a real-life variation on what you might call a lifeboat dilemma, in which you are asked what would you do in this situation, and why. It occurred over the weekend in northwest Tennessee, up near the Missouri line.
OBION COUNTY, Tenn. – Imagine your home catches fire but the local fire department won’t respond, then watches it burn. That’s exactly what happened to a local family tonight.
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.
Apparently the Cranicks called 9-1-1 repeatedly, but the fire department refused to respond. It finally did show up, but only after the slow-burning fire threatened the property of a neighbor who had paid the upfront fee. And once on the scene, the firefighters still just stood there with their equipment and watched the fire burn, ignoring pleas from the Cranicks that they would pay anything at all for help.
A local TV station asked the fire chief on the scene why he and his crew were just watching while a home burned down.
“He wouldn’t talk to us and called police to have us escorted off the property. Police never came but firefighters quickly left the scene. Meanwhile, the Cranick home continued to burn.
We asked the mayor of South Fulton if the chief could have made an exception.
“Anybody that’s not in the city of South Fulton, it’s a service we offer, either they accept it or they don’t,” Mayor David Crocker said.
I can certainly see the city’s point of view. In the mind of the mayor, the Cranicks had gambled that they wouldn’t need fire services and they lost that gamble and had to pay the price.
On the other hand, if you’ve got personnel and equipment on the scene and a desperate homeowner promising at that point to pay not just $75 but the entire cost, sitting and watching to make a point seems more than a little callous.
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?
No, we don’t. At least not yet. Instead, the solution implemented in President Obama’s health-care reform — a solution initially proposed by conservatives — is to require that everyone carry insurance, so that the “free riders” are eliminated. That way everyone is covered, much like, in the example above, everyone in the city limits of South Fulton is required to pay taxes to support fire protection. (Again, the Cranicks live in unincorporated Obion County, where such coverage is optional.)
A similar case just popped up outside Boulder, Colo., where wildfires raged last month. The area had its own firefighting system, but some property owners had purchased additional protection from private firefighting companies, which showed up on the scene to protect only those areas.
As an editorial in the local newspaper pointed out, “The Chubb agreement puts private crews in the potential position of having to speed past one home under imminent threat of destruction to arrive at a customer’s home that is under no immediate threat at all.”
Yes, it certainly does. In the Boulder case, those with the resources can hire private firefighting protection to enhance the basic, publicly run firefighting system, a benefit that less affluent property owners can’t afford. And that two-tiered system does seem to be a trend of sorts.
The Georgia DOT, to cite an example, is taking lane miles on I-85 and eventually other metro Interstates — infrastructure built with gasoline taxes that all of us pay — converting those lanes to the sole use of those willing and able to pay more to travel quicker. Likewise, the whole idea behind school vouchers is to provide a basic, publicly funded level of education but allow parents with resources to take that money and supplement it with resources of their own in a private school setting.
So … whaddya think?