Could a fire department really let a home burn?

Citizens, and not fire departments, choose what level of fire and emergency services protection they receive through their local public policy processes


Editor’s Note:

Editor's note: With a volunteer fire department in central B.C. saying people who haven't paid an annual fee will be on their own if their house catches fire, Chief Adam K. Thiel says it's actually not that new of a trend.

With the continued challenges of the present economic environment, stories such as that of a department being prepared to "let homes burn" if fees go unpaid are becoming increasingly common. In fact, however, there's nothing new here...

Fee-based fire and emergency services provision has been around for a long time. Some of the earliest fire departments in the United States operated under the same model.

If you visit Colonial-era cities today, you might still see the "firemarks" on early buildings reflecting their protection by one fire company or another, depending on the group to whom the property owners paid their dues.

Similarly, it's a generally accepted practice for EMS agencies, public and private, to bill the users of their services for transportation, medical care, and supplies.

And you may not believe it, but there are still places in the U.S. where no organized fire protection exists. Places where, if a building burns, nobody is charged with responding to the incident.

Over time, however, most jurisdictions have chosen to provide fire protection as a "public good" funded by (usually through tax dollars), and available to, the community as a whole. But that's a choice...

The new (old) reality is that — right, wrong, or otherwise — citizens (not fire departments) get to choose what level of fire and emergency services protection they receive through their local public policy processes.

As obvious advocates for ensuring that everyone has access to fire and emergency services, we firefighters might not like it, but what's the alternative?

Life safety situations aside, should we really place firefighters at risk to protect buildings where the property owners, as in this case, have made the explicit choice not to fund fire protection? What do you say to the family of a fallen firefighter who is killed trying to save something the owner didn't care enough about to pay $160 per year?

Think about it...and stay safe!

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel — FireRescue1's editorial advisor — is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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