By Eric Z. Lucas
A Failure of Law Negates A Public Service
On September 29, 2010, Gene Cranick of Obion County, Tennessee and his family lost all of their possessions when their house burned down. As it burned, firefighters from the local fire department watched. The reason the firefighters watched the house burn had nothing to do with their mission of fighting fires. It was not a safety issue. It did not happen because the house was too far-gone. It happened for the shocking reason that Mr. Cranick forgot to pay a $75 dollar fee.
Like many rural areas, in the place where the Cranick’s live, the county does not provide countywide firefighting service. So when they dialed 911 the response came from the nearby City of South Fulton. The city offers fire coverage for a fee of $75 dollars. Because the Cranick’s were not on the paid list the 911 operator would not dispatch the firefighters. However, the dispatcher did send the fire department out for the Cranick’s next-door neighbor, who had paid the fee. The firefighters sprayed water up to his fence line but would not spray water on the burning house: All because of a missing $75 dollar fee.
Harold Schaitberger, President of the International Association of Firefighters said, “Professional, career firefighters shouldn’t be forced to check a list before running out the door to see which homeowners have paid up.” This writer agrees. In fact, when it comes to firefighting, our expectation as citizens is that firefighters should act for the sake of others and not for themselves. This is how many of the firefighters died in the 9/11 terrorists attacks. This is why we honor, as heroes, those who die fighting fires: because they act for the sake of others and not solely for themselves.
Clearly, any job, any work, any task, can be done solely for one’s own benefit or for the sake of others. But in the case of fighting fires, as a community, we no longer feel it is proper for this to be done “for profit” or solely for the benefit of the firefighter, or solely for the revenue stream of a city. Today in our society we consider firefighting to be a public service. So when we see, as in the case of the Cranick’s, firefighting done merely for a fee, we feel offended. We understand that what happened here is wrong because firefighting is a public service intended for all who are in need. It is not a privilege given only to those who can afford it.
As a former small town, city attorney, I felt real pain at this event because it is so easily corrected. The city I represented had a population of 1500 but the fire department served the entire south area of the county. Those outside the city limits who received fire service could come into the service area with a fee. Yet, unlike the City of South Fulton, the firefighters of my city would respond to any call. And if they were not included in the coverage area they were charged for the actual cost of the service. So, to me this is a legal problem. It is an ordinance-drafting problem. Someone forgot to include, in the language of the ordinance, the spirit of the activity, the fact that firefighting is a public service. Someone forgot that we don’t allow people to be destroyed by fire because of the cost. All that is necessary is language to the effect that if the “caller has not paid the fee they will pay for the actual cost of the service call.” If the law had contained this language, then the firefighters involved would not have been forced to watch a house burn to the ground. The spirit of firefighting would not have been violated if this spirit had been incorporated into the law. In my view, in this instance, the law actually interfered with a public service. This is a thing that the spirit of our laws should never be allowed do. Our laws should always encourage and support public service.