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Getting what you pay for

Incident in which firefighters let a mobile home burn to the ground because the owner didn't pay an annual fee raises several questions


Over the past few days, there has been a great deal of interest in the media, especially on Keith Olbermann's Countdown, regarding a structure fire outside of South Fulton in the state of Tennessee.

The Associated Press reported how firefighters let a mobile home burn to the ground because the owner didn't pay an annual $75 fire protection fee.

Jeff Vowell, city manager of South Fulton, told the Union City Daily Messenger that the city fire department let Gene Cranick's trailer home near the Kentucky border burn last week because he didn't pay the subscription common in many rural areas.

Two things seem clear to me from the video that accompanies this story:

  • Mr. Olbermann and his viewers truly think that firefighters are superheroes
  • Neither have a clue of what we do or don't do.

Both the superhero status often bandied about and public ignorance should scare us to death.

I want to state from the beginning that this article is in no way shape or form a judgment on the South Fulton Fire Department, the department's Chief, Bob Reavis, or the members.

In fact, I'm a big believer that each community should choose its form (quantity and quality) of fire protection and how they will pay for it. However, all too often we are dishonest about what we can, will, or are willing to accomplish. It may be acceptable to some to go from a four-man truck company to a staff of two, but if we say that crew can do the same level of work in the same time, we are just lying.

I also want to be unequivocal that my heart goes out to the Cranick family, who lost their property. Losing their property and pets is heartbreaking, a heartbreak that will not be assuaged by becoming a teachable moment yet it's a teachable moment nonetheless.

It's too often the case that our citizens have little or no understanding of what it is we can accomplish. They don't understand that our most visible activity, fire suppression, is our last effort. Fire prevention, including public education and code enforcement, are the most powerful tools we have at stopping a fire in the first place and the resulting damage that is caused to both life and property.

What continues to worry me is the disconnect between policy makers and the media, which informs the public. I'm not sure what the response time is for this fire department, but I've been to quite a few fires involving doublewide trailers such as this one and the outcome tends to be the same -- the buildings don't have a great deal of structural mass and therefore burn quickly. But the general response was that the fire department is expected to do everything within its power to save the property of this family.

The issue of how we pay for the fire service is worthy of discussion, but I think in this case we'd be missing the forest for the trees. Two issues scream out to me:

1. As the economy continues to decline and as taxes continue to be seen as a pariah of the future of America, how do we pay for the fire service?

2.There have, been – and will continue to be -- cases where citizens believe that regardless of the process of paying for fire protection, firefighters should place themselves in harm's way not only to save lives but also to save structures.

And what for me is the most relevant message from this whole affair? It's that the fire service needs to ensure that citizens not only get what they pay for, but that someone pays for what they get.

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