Fire department does nothing as house burns down

October 6, 2010

Last week, in Obion County, Tennessee, firefighters refused to help extinguish a house fire, because the homeowners failed to pay the annual $75 fire-protection fee to the fire department:

A local neighborhood is furious after firefighters watched as an Obion County, Tennessee, home burned to the ground.

The homeowner, Gene Cranick, said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late. They wouldn’t do anything to stop his house from burning.

Each year, Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton. But the Cranicks did not pay.

The mayor said if homeowners don’t pay, they’re out of luck.

Some bloggers are using this story to rail against libertarian ideas that encourage the privatization of traditionally public services such as fire departments, police departments, library systems, etc. The general inference they make is, if you hand over essential public services like fire and police into the hands of greedy heartless capitalists, then this is the kind of calamity that will ensue.

The problem with the context of this attack (as David Henderson points out) is that the Obion County fire department is NOT a private “for-profit” fire department. It is owned and operated by the government of South Fulton, Tennessee. It’s a traditional government-run publicly-owned fire-fighting service, not unlike the one in your hometown (tho perhaps a bit more stupid and spiteful).

There’s no denying it, this story is a tragedy, in terms both moral and economic. The obvious moral tragedy is that the community fire department callously stood by and did nothing to help their fellow man in desperate need. The economic tragedy is, not only was wealth senselessly destroyed (both the homeowner’s and the community’s wealth), but also the homeowner claims he offered to pay “whatever it would take” to extinguish the flames — and yet the fire department still refused.

It would be a far better policy, from an economic point of view, to alert the homeowner that he has not payed his annual dues, and as such he will be charged for the man-hours and resources required to service the fire. At say, $100/man-hour, with maybe 10 men, fighting the fire for about 2 hours or so, using x amount of water, that’s a $2000+ call. A good night’s work.

I believe if the fire department were in fact a private for-profit enterprise, they would have indeed fought the fire, and afterward sent the homeowner a bill.

Instead, they were impeded by some stupid spiteful bureaucratic nonsense. And in the process, they lost their sense of both morality, and good economics.


One Response to “Fire department does nothing as house burns down”

  1. Agreed.

    Nevil Shute argues convincingly in “Slide Rule” that there’s a difference between private companies and public institutions when it comes to stupidity.

    Both of them may be at equal risk for hiring stupid decision-makers. However, the private companies have a stronger incentive to get rid of them again, and are generally better at it. Shute’s story is fascinating: He uses the contrast between the R101 and the R100 projects as a tool to get his message across.

    I think he’s right – up to a point – although I think he would have written the story differently if he’d done it today: It’s been amply demonstsrated that private investors will also behave irresponsibly, if given a chance.


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