Should Access to Emergency Services be an Option or a Right? Weigh In!

J. Money recently brought attention to a dramatic story circulating around the Internet about a house that burned down because a man didn’t pay his $75 fire fighting fee.

Here’s J’s quote from the original story:

“Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the fire, along with three dogs and a cat.

“They could have been saved if they had put water on it, but they didn’t do it,” Cranick told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.”…

Firefighters did eventually show up, but only to fight the fire on the neighboring property, whose owner had paid the fee.

“They put water out on the fence line out here. They never said nothing to me. Never acknowledged. They stood out here and watched it burn,” Cranick said.”

This prompted a long, 80+ comment discussion with readers taking both sides. Some were in favor of the homeowner, feeling appalled that the firefighters would let the house burn down. Others stood with the County, insisting that the homeowner should have been more responsible and paid his fee.

Whether or not you agree with letting this house burn down, I’m more interested in the larger issue. Why is access to emergency services treated as an option instead something you have to do?

I think this is a foolish approach for one primary reason:

When you give people the option to do something, you can bet that at least a few will take it. When it comes to emergency services, these are often the people at high risk for something to happen (e.g. people who can’t afford to maintain their home properly).

When a calamity does strike, it doesn’t affect us individually. If your house is on fire, it also affects every other property around you (as was the case here). If firefighters are busy building a perimeter instead of focusing on putting out the source, do you have faith that they can contain the flames every time?

I think the only appropriate solution is the following:

Whether you call them taxes, assessments, fees, or anything else, let’s never make payments for emergency services an option.

Build them into the tax structure, or do whatever else needs to be done to make it work. Let’s face it–$75 should not be a big deal to a homeowner who already pays thousands in maintenance and taxes.

Consider some of the other implications:

  • What would happen if 911 centers were only available to callers who registered and paid a fee?
  • Should police check a roster of tax delinquencies before they go into your home to stop a burglar?
  • Should an ambulance leave you bleeding to death because you can’t pre-pay the ride to the hospital?
  • If I have a dead body to hide, can I get the list of “unpaid” homes to burn down? (Okay, I don’t really–put down the phone)

I’m all for personal responsibility, but there are certain things in this country that we should take for granted. Someone coming to save me is certainly one of them.

Photo by Brad Gillette

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8 thoughts on “Should Access to Emergency Services be an Option or a Right? Weigh In!

  1. I have to go over and check out J’s article. I’m behind on my RSS articles (over 1,000 unread), so I haven’t been to his site in a few weeks.

    I wrote about this last week (I’ll link to it with comment luv below) and it has become my second most commented on article thus far! Most people have displayed mixed emotions. So, here’s my take:

    With the arrangement in it’s current form, the firefighters didn’t have much choice. Even though it was an emergency service, the agreement with the town’s residents was set up like an insurance policy. Pay a $75 premium, and if you have a fire, we’ll come and put it out; don’t pay, then you’re on your own. This guy forgot to pay, so he wasn’t entitled to the service.

    I would like to think that the firefighters felt horrible about being there to basically contain the fire to his house – so it wouldn’t spread to that of his “insured” neighbor – and watching everything he owned get destroyed.

    The new arrangement should be that if someone doesn’t pay the premium, then they will be billed at actual costs plus a surcharge. The fire department would need to have rights to receive a payout from the insurance company, or some other way of guaranteeing payment.

    Another solution is to find a way to include fire services from the neighboring city into their tax assessments, and then pass that money over to the larger city.

    1. I agree with your proposed solution as an alternate to just making it part of the tax roll. But I still think it leaves too many things open-ended.

      Such as–what if the person can’t afford to pay to have the fire put out–do the taxpayers cover the cost or do we still let the house burn?

  2. That’s truly bizarre. I didn’t realize there were places where emergency service fees were paid separately from general taxes. The big question in my mind is whether the firefighters would have done anything to help if human lives had been at stake.

    1. My understanding is yes–they would have to. To not have would not only be inhuman, but cause such an uproar that most of these arrangements would have been repealed at once.

  3. I think I heard that it was, technically, against the law for the firefighters to put out that fire – based on the fact that he didn’t pay that fee.

    I agree, payment for all emergency services needs to be built into the tax structure (when I lived in Pennsylvania, it was) because this is just ridiculous.

    Regardless, my issue is this: when do people say “screw the rules” and just take a bullet for someone else? If I were a firefighter, I would have NEVER stood there and let that happen. Ever. There are few times I can say, “If I were them, I’d do it differently.” with certainty – but this is one.

    We’re talking about human beings here – and people, at the end of the day, are more important than $75 or weird laws and rules. Yes, the guy should have paid his bill. Yes, these rules need to be changed. But the firefighters should have been decent and done it anyways. I get why they didn’t (if they did that for his house, now people may not feel a need to pay the fee at all), but from my heart, I wish they had.

    1. Yup, Lisa, that’s a tough emotional and social choice. If you break the rules for one guy, does it oblige you to start breaking them elsewhere? But I completely agree–the system should not have been set up for them to have that choice to make in the first place. It’s like being shoved between a rock and a hard place and made to choose the rock.

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