Michael Giberson

The blogosphere is a tinderbox and an errant spark can trigger a storm of fire. In this case the spark was a news story about a city fire department refusing to put out a house fire for a home outside the city limits.  For Salon writer Alex Pareene, curiously, this story implies something about the moral absurdity of libertarianism. EconLog‘s David Henderson objects that policies of government-run fire departments are probably not illustrative of libertarian ideals.

Many, many other writers chime in: Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, Jonah Goldberg at NRO, Paul Walker at Anti-Dismal, Ed Lopez at Division of Labour, E.D. Kain at Balloon Juice, the Huffington Post and more can be found with a little effort (<= a Google blog search currently showing over 7,000 results).

Zaid Julani at ThinkProgress gets the political story a little better, seeing it an example of conservative, no-frills government and the consequences of inadequate provision of public services. Julani, on the other hand, claims a progressive outlook and “believes in an American Dream that works for all people, regardless of their racial, religious, or economic background.” More to the case here, the progressive view seems to be that Obion County Tennessee residents should tax themselves more and buy some firefighting services, whether local voters and local elected officials prefer such policies or not.

There are some interesting angles here – moral hazard, duty to rescue, scope of public service, the enforceability of contracts signed under duress, local governance, and so on – but they ought to be informed by the local experience with other policies. If, for example, you are going to advocate a policy that has failed in the past, you ought to know it failed in the past and have a story as to why “this time it’s different.”

So for a local perspective, a statement from the Union City Fire Department (not the fire department involved directly in the story, but from a nearby city):

The Truth about Subscription Fire Service in Obion County TN.

Due to the large number of information requests and emails from individuals who have only heard one side of the story from local and national media, we have included a statement from the Union City Fire Chief to try to educate the public on the situation with the rural fire subscription service in Obion County. The following is that statement:

The events of the Cranick fire in Obion County Tennessee on Wednesday September 29th, 2010, have with no pun intended; created a “media fire storm.”

So much “finger pointing” has ensued, that the true facts of the incident have been blown out of proportion.

The first point that needs to be noted is that Obion County Tennessee does not have a county fire department.  Secondly, no county tax revenues are even ear marked for county fire protection.

The county is made up of 8 municipalities which do provide fire protection to its city residents, through city property taxes, which fund their respective fire departments.

Three of theses cities, South Fulton; Kenton and Union City allow their departments to respond outside the city limits by way of a Subscription Service which charges a $75 yearly fee to receive fire protection.  After they respond to a “members” fire, the member is billed $500 for the response.

Why the $75 and a charge of $500?  This can be compared to any insurance.  You have a premium; the $75 and then you have a deductable; the $500.  The policy, of these cities is that if the fee isn’t paid, then the fire department does not respond.  The only exception being; life endangerment. (A report that someone may be inside the home.)

These fees help offset the cost of equipment and manpower, paid for by the city tax payers to help fight fires in the county.

The remaining 5 city fire departments have for years responded into the county without a subscription service, banking on collecting fees for their services, “after the fact.”  The problem has been, that once those people have been provided the service; they often seem to choose not to reimburse.  Attempting to charge on a per call basis does not generate the needed funds nor does it give county residents an incentive to support the cities, if they can wait until they actually have a fire to pay anything….

3 thoughts on “Tinderbox

  1. Not sure I understand your take – do you think this was a failed policy that can be learned from?

    This is precisely what insurance is. We all feel bad when someone is improvident then gets burned (pun!), and sometimes we even help, but the moral failing is not with the fire dept – it’s with the improvident home owner. Isn’t this what the grasshopper and the ants fable is about?

    I suspect us outsiders are so accustomed to public provision of fire protection that we are shocked by what happened and sympathetic to the victim. But if the policy was plainly articulated and expectations were clear, it wouldn’t be shocking to the local population. I bet they are aren’t clamoring for reform like the rest of us.

  2. No, I didn’t mean the Union City policy was a failed policy, though I guess it is a reasonable inference given what I wrote. I meant to refer to the expectation that the city fire departments should just go ahead and provide service and hope to be paid later. That is the policy that has been tried in the past and failed. As Union City says, it turned out to be hard to get non-subscribers to pay after the service was provided, with the result being that providing service to non-subscribers living outside the city became a financial burden to taxpayers in the city.

    I also suspect that the local population isn’t clamoring for their county taxes to rise in order to cover the full county with fire protection service. Maybe given this very emotional example the county will change policies, but I suspect not.

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