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They Didn't Pay The Fee: Firefighters Watch Tennessee Family's House Burn

Last week, Paulette and Gene Cranick's grandson started a fire in a burn barrel outside the couple's Tennessee home.

He added garbage, then went inside to take a shower. A few minutes later, he noticed an adjacent shed was engulfed in flames. It didn't take long for the fire to spread to the house.

The South Fulton City Fire Department arrived, but because the Cranicks hadn't paid a $75 fire service subscription fee, they refused to spray an ounce of water on the flames, Chad Lampe, a reporter from NPR member station WKMS reports. (The Cranicks lived outside the city limits.)

Neighbors protested. Some of them offered to pay the firefighters thousands of dollars. Ultimately, the Cranicks lost everything, including three dogs and a cat.

Lampe filed a report on the fire for All Things Considered.

One resident told him that, in her opinion, "I think morally the right thing would have been to put the fire out." Someone else said the Cranicks brought the devastation on themselves.

The Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn asks, "Which side of the fire line are you on?"

He says that, "given the potential for real human tragedy as well as the spread of destruction, fire protection is exactly the sort of government service that should be (loaded word alert) socialized."

Together, we should pool our resources to guarantee that the unluckiest or most hapless among us will receive a quick, professional and thorough response to a disaster that, if unchecked, could spread its ruin to others. Since it violates our collective sense of decency to stand by while others suffer and offer moral judgments and lessons in free-market virtues, single-payer is clearly the way to go.

Economist Hamermesh poses this question: "Is fire protection excludable?"

In a small town, with widely separated houses, it may be—after all, what is the harm to me if the house of the family who hadn’t paid its tax burns down? In such a case, the best argument for requiring payment of the fire-protection fee is that there are economies of scale in providing protection. But then the fee should be compulsory -- a tax. In a suburb or city, the density of dwellings means that there are such large externalities that fire protection is non-excludable.

Perhaps Paulette Cranick's opinion matters most.

"You can't blame [the firefighters] if they have to do what the boss says to do," she told The Associated Press. "I've had firemen call and apologize."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.