County Resident Declines to Pay For Fire Protection and Then His House Catches on Fire

Here’s an interesting question about the proper scope of government arising from Obion County, Tennessee. The county does not have its own fire department, and instead relies on the fire protection services of the nearby City of Fulton. But there’s a catch: The City of Fulton does not automatically serve residents of the county. If Obion County residents want to be protected by the City of Fulton Fire Department, they need to pay a $75 fee to the City.

Obion County resident Gene Cranick decided not to pay the $75 fee, and then he set a fire in his backyard in two large barrels. The fire began to spread, and he called 911. The 911 operator told him that because he hadn’t paid the fee, the fire department would not respond. Cranick’s wife told the 911 operator that she would be willing to pay “whatever the cost” to hire the Fire Department to put out the fire, but was told that this was not an option. The Fire Department did not come out until the fire spread to a neighbor’s yard — the neighbor had paid the fee — and the firemen put out the neighbor’s fire but not Cranick’s.

According to press reports, the community is outraged that the Fire Department didn’t respond to Cranick’s call and save his house. But it seems to me that if you’re going to make an insurance program optional, the way to get the service is to pay the fee. It doesn’t make much sense to decline to pay for a service and then be upset when it isn’t provided to you.

Over at The Corner, Daniel Foster finds it objectionable that the Fire Department didn’t agree to individually contract with the Cranicks to provide the service when Mrs. Cranick said over the phone that they would pay for the service “whatever the cost.” But I don’t know how the city is supposed to contract individually with the Cranicks while their house is burning down. Is the city supposed to treat Mrs. Cranick’s statement that she would be willing to pay as the acceptance of a contract, at whatever the cost ends up being? At whatever the city wants to charge? And what if the Cranicks don’t have the money to pay the actual cost of the firefighters coming out and putting out the fire?

Of course, one obvious solution is to make the service mandatory: Require homeowners to pay the $75 as a mandatory tax, and then you don’t have to worry about whether any particular house is covered and the fire department always has to respond. But that choice is up to the people of Obion County, of course.

So what do you think: Should the County require all its residents to pay the free and receive coverage? Alternatively, should the county require the Fire Department to contract with individuals in emergencies if they need the fire department’s services but did not pay the fee? Or is the current system the best alternative?