Firefighters Let House Burn and Pets Die Over $75

by Khaleef Crumbley on October 8, 2010

in Insurance

Post image for Firefighters Let House Burn and Pets Die Over $75

So, I’m sure that many of you have already heard about the house that burned down in Tennessee because the owner didn’t pay a $75 fee to the neighboring city. Here’s is a video of the account:

Gene Cranick says that firefighters watched as his home burned to the ground and refused to help, because he hadn’t paid an annual “pay to spray” fee.

According to the ABC News article:

The city of South Fulton charges that $75 fire protection fee to rural residents who live outside the city limits. When a household has not paid the fee, firefighters are required by law to not respond.

“We have to follow the rules and the ordinances set forth to us, and that’s exactly what we do,” said Jeff Vowell, South Fulton city manager.

When I first read this story, I wondered why the firefighters would travel all the way to his house just to watch it burn down. However, they only showed up to protect his neighbor’s home (his neighbor paid his fee)!

“My neighbor called [the fire department], saying whatever it takes, we want them to put it out, we’ll pay $500,” said Cranick. “They told us, ‘It’s too late.'”

Before we get too outraged with the idea of paying a fee, keep in mind that this is a common practice. Many cities charge a fee to nearby rural communities for emergency services. Cranick didn’t pay the fee and therefore, didn’t receive the service!

Two Different Views…

They did nothing wrong!

This is no different than insurance: You pay a fee (premium) for protection from a future event that may or may not happen. If the event happens, you’re covered; if it doesn’t, you don’t get your money back. No insurance company will let you wait until your house burns down to take out a policy! You must have the coverage BEFORE the incident.

He made the mistake of letting his coverage lapse, and he wasn’t eligible to file a claim  [on the service] when he faced an emergency! This is done all of the time without complaint.

They had a moral obligation to help!

Even though he didn’t pay the fee, the firefighters had a moral obligation to help. We’re not talking about rescuing a cat that got stuck in a tree – then I can understand refusing service. However, they just stood there and watched everything this man owned get destroyed! They were already there, how much would it have really cost them to help?

What do you think?

  • Should the firefighters have gone out to the scene even though Cranick didn’t pay the fire protection fee?
  • If not, should they have at least put out the fire once they showed up to assist his neighbor?
  • If someone doesn’t pay for a service, do they still have a right to expect that service when it’s needed?
  • Do you think there should be any changes to this policy?




© 2010 – 2011, Khaleef Crumbley. All rights reserved.

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{ 66 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shane

I understand both points of view. If the fee is necessary to maintain the fire department and paying it is mandatory, then it serves the guy right. I hope he has insurance. On the moral front, yes, the firefighters have an obligation but it even says that they are required by law not to respond. The part that I’m most upset about is that the pets were allowed to die. That is unacceptable by itself. What would they have done if there was a person inside? The point is, it’s $75. If it’s required, pay the stupid thing or take it to city council and get it removed.

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2 Mark@HOI

Hopefully the guy at a minimum had home insurance to cover the loss. I can’t imagine loosing everything, including your dog, and not being able to afford rebuilding. It’s also a shame the fire fighters didn’t put the fire out. Isn’t that why people pay taxes? Shouldn’t have to pay another fee, it should be rolled into city, sewer, trash rebills if they want money for fire fighters.

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3 Invest It Wisely

There’s another perspective on this at http://blog.mises.org/14615/burning-down-the-house/. Some of the comments go into the history of private fire fighting in the US (and also how this recent situation differs from those), so I found it interesting.

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4 Fig

Omg! This is so horrible!! I can’t believe they did that, rules or no rules. Who lets a house burn when your job is to stop it? Horrible.

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5 michael @ credit cards

Correct that the fire fighters have a moral obligation whether you’re paid or not, fire fighters have to keep the fire out so nobody to implicate in the fire and create more damages. Not good at all, such a disappointing action from this fire fighters’ team.

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6 Mgaff

I would like to know how much this department recieves from the state and fed. government for the station. That being said more than likely these people pay some form of tax and I am pretty sure that some of this money goes to the fire dept. Also in doing research I was unable to find what this $75 a year even goes for. Anyone know?????

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7 Heather

You (general) realize that all of the people who are treated without payment in the emergency room are paid for by the rest of us?

You could charge them whatever you want after the fact, but short of garnishing their wages — if they’re working — it’s about impossible to get it from them.

You could ding their credit, but that doesn’t pay for fire trucks or fire fighters.

Ideally, there are lots of services that everyone “should” have because it’s the right, humane thing to do (including health care beyond the ER), but in reality, these are things that we need to pay for, and if you don’t pay for it, in the majority of cases, you don’t get it.

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8 The Saved Quarter

I think of this as an issue similar to the emergency room. If you show up at the emergency room having a heart attack, the doctors can’t turn you away because you don’t have insurance. Perhaps you’ve got health insurance but left your card at home, or didn’t pay your premium last month. They’re not going to let you die while they figure it out. They save your life and then bill the crap out of you. The emergency is resolved first and the payment arrangements are made later.

This is the same thing: you solve the immediate emergency first, and then figure out the payment. Levy a fine, but don’t come and let a home and pets burn to the ground when you have the ability to stop it. Humanity comes before money.

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9 Invest It Wisely

Great response. The opportunity for billing on site or another arrangements should never have been explicitly forbidden by the law. Imagine the law said that patients must be left to die if they have no insurance? The law is at fault here, and should be made more flexible for future cases. This homeowner clearly did not tell the firefighters to get lost, and was clearly willing to pay, above and beyond the $75 regular fee.

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10 Khaleef Crumbley

Excellent point. I guess no one wanted to make the decision to put humanity above the procedures. Hopefully, they will change the arrangement to include a better response to these types of emergencies.

The only difference in the ER example is that the “insurance” was actually provided by the fire department. So, their thinking was more like, “we offered you a chance to contract with us to put out your fires, and you chose not to do it…now you want to take us up on the offer after it’s too late – nope!”.

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11 Jeff@Before You Invest

Wow this is crazy. I mean I can understand the fact that rules are rules but they should have some kind of language in the deal that you can pay the $75 or if you don’t and you have a fire then you get charged $500.

The fact that pets died in the fire really hurts though, awful thing to hear. This could be handled much better!

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12 Khaleef Crumbley

I agree, the contract should allow for something to happen in the case of a huge emergency. I mean, if the guy didn’t pay his fee and his cat was stuck up a tree, then they could just say, “you didn’t pay your premium…no coverage”. But in this case, I wish there was a way to solve this differently.

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13 retireby40

That’s ridiculous! The firefighters should have put the fire out, that’s why they became a firefighter. They should have just include the charge in the property tax and everyone pay.
That said, this is just like our current heath care system….

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14 Khaleef Crumbley

Yeah, but this wasn’t their call. Someone at a desk made this decision and everyone agreed to it when this arrangement was set up. If you don’t pay the premium, then you’re not covered during the emergency.

Maybe this will cause the town to come up with a better option for their residents (besides arranging for an insurance policy with a neighboring town).

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15 youngandthrifty

That’s absolutely horrid! Very sad to hear that we have degraded to behaving like this towards each other. =(

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16 Khaleef Crumbley

I have to believe that the firefighters had an extremely difficult time not doing anything to save the guy’s house. This decision was made way before this fire happened – and of course it’s much easier to make a life-or-death decision when there’s no real emergency. Enough people thought this was the right call when the arrangement was set up.

I wonder if they feel that way now?

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17 CodpieceWatch

It is most definitelty NOT the same as insurance, because firefighters are funded with tax payers’s dollars. What’s next? That in addition to taxes, we have to pay the police extra money? The road department? The schools, etc.? This is absolutely shameful and tragic.

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18 Heather

But the firefighters are NOT paid by their taxpayer dollars. That’s the point. That’s why there’s a fee. People who live in the city pay taxes which pays the firefighters. People who live outside of the city don’t.

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19 CodpieceWatch

Maybe it’s different in every state, but I live in a town of 150 and have never paid a dime. They drove to the site and sat in their trucks while the house burned down with all of the pets inside – did they get paid to do that? It’s despicable what they did.

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20 Khaleef Crumbley

This is actually pretty common in some rural areas. For whatever reason, it doesn’t make financial sense for them to have their own emergency services, so they contract with a neighboring city. This arrangement effectively becomes an insurance policy – because it’s optional and participation requires the payment of a premium.

Maybe that’s just a bad model that needs to be revamped!

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21 John Diggers

Absolutely astonishing.

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22 Danielle Coleman

I think the town was trying to make an example out of the family so that people would pay their $75 dollar fee, but the expense was a lot more than that fee! Should the family have paid prior to? Of course, but that was cruel for them to come out for the neighbor’s and not even stop the fire spreading at the other home. Most people offer their opinion without a solution, but he was willing to pay them the fee! They should have taken the money and put the fire out.

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23 Khaleef Crumbley

I agree. I’m sure that they city got a lot of $75 payments the next day!

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24 ditchtheboss

My views are, save the house and then send him a hefty fine for not paying the fee or charge him the cost, whatever is the most expensive.

It is really unbelievable that they let the house burn down.

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25 Khaleef Crumbley

Yeah, I’m all for sticking it to him! Ultimately, he’s responsible, so if they have to save his house, he should pay BIG!

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26 Aloysa

Humans have a moral obligation to help. What $75 in our lives? How can someone put a cost on the person’s life? The man’s life was destroyed for $75? Are you kidding me? Turn off his water, or power, don’t pick up his garbage, charge him an interest but save his house! I cannot even talk about the cat. It hits too close to home since I have a cat.

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27 Invest It Wisely

I think they could have had him pay for the costs instead of watching the house burn down… The media will have a field day with this one, but just hoping they don’t go down the wrong path. Opening up the law to better alternatives than “watch the house burn” would help; having a volunteer fire deparment would help. Pretty much anything would be better.

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28 Roshawn @ Watson Inc

Kevin,

An incident similar to this occurred in 2008. The town had a meeting, but ultimately nothing was changed. Budgetary restrictions have gotten worst since then. I wonder if the outcry over this incident will be enough to effect a policy change. One thing is for sure, it certainly will motivate a lot of neighboring residents to pay for their fees now.

I still feel conflicted about this too. I feel like the good thing to do would be to help. However, I think anger directed towards the firefighters is completely misplaced. Change the policy, don’t hate the firefighters who are risking their lives every time they do a job. Times may be hard in many areas, but these brave men and women are offering you a service (not a right) for a nominal fee. All they ask is that you remember to pay your bill if value it. The focus needs to be on developing a policy that everyone can live with (who knows if anything will change though).

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29 Khaleef Crumbley

Yeah, I think that this might push them to make those changes. Charge him the full costs plus a fee – tie it to his homeowner’s insurance (unless he conveniently forgets to pay THAT premium as well) or something to guarantee payment.

However, since they didn’t make these changes before, who says they will now?

The ultimate responsibility needs to fall on him!

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30 Heather

If I paid my fees and my neighbor didn’t and we got the same services, I would not be happy. If I paid my fees and my neighbor bribed his way into the same services, I would not be happy.

I live in an area where these services are paid by my taxes, so it’s a non-issue for me, but I don’t “forget” to pay my homeowners insurance. You get the services you pay for.

Yes, that’s a fairly callous way of looking at it, but the homeowner had the opportunity to hire the fire department in case of just such emergencies and chose not to. That’s not the fire department’s fault.

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31 Khaleef Crumbley

I agree with you on your first point. In general, I would hate to see that I followed the rules and someone else didn’t, but they get the same service that I get.

I also live in a city where fire/police services are covered by property taxes, so it’s easy for me to come to that conclusion.

I don’t think that the fire department did wrong here – I just think that the system is flawed. Hopefully, this will start up an intelligent dialog that can lead to a better solution.

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32 Freddie @ Real Estate Investing

This is just unbelieveable what they did. They say there were some pets trapped inside as well. What if there were a little girl trapped inside, would they have let her burn for $75 bucks. Come on!

Like I heard it said on Bill Mahr, why not put the fire out, then send the people a bill for say$150. They could have doubled their profit.

Geesh! What is this world coming to!

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33 Khaleef Crumbley

I think the problem for the fire department is that they structured this like an insurance policy. He didn’t pay the premium, and they made it clear beforehand that if someone doesn’t pay, they aren’t entitled to the service. The man didn’t pay (said he just forgot) but still wanted the service.

If they let him pay after the fact, then they are telling everyone in that town that they don’t have to pay unless they actually use the service. That’s definitely something that can’t happen.

I actually feel bad for the firefighters, because I’m sure they wanted to help but had to follow orders.

I think in the future, they should set it up to put out the fire and then charge the homeowner for the actual costs (something that will be thousands of dollars)!

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34 Andrew @ Money Crashers

I totally hear you on the principle of not getting a service if you didn’t pay the fee, especially if it’s on a super personal level (like insurance). But when it comes to people’s lives and pet’s lives, I think there is an obligation. Moreover, there is nothing to say this fire couldn’t have spread to become a wildfire. This is definitely a big dilemma and you raise some really interesting points. This is almost more of a philosophical argument than anything else. But personally I feel like they should have helped, if for no other reason than for the good of the town and for others…not just for the homeowner himself.

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35 Khaleef Crumbley

This is definitely a hard one to think about. The fact that many people receive this as a “free” (really covered by local taxes) service, makes it difficult to compare to other areas.

I also wonder if the neighbor who paid the fee hadn’t called, would they have come just to make sure it didn’t spread to public property. Do they have an agreement with the town for that?

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36 Car Negotiation Coach

I”m going to vote that they have a moral obligation to help. When you get into potential life and death issues, it’s pretty clear what is right and wrong.

If the gov. can’t collect the fee they have plenty of other options rather than letting the house burn. Try a fine or perhaps a credit ding….but is it really necessary to make an example out of this guy and let his house burn to the ground? crazy!

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37 Khaleef Crumbley

I wonder if everyone involved in this arrangement considered what would happen if someone’s house caught on fire who didn’t pay the fee. It’s easy to say “let it burn”, but it’s really hard to follow through when it happens.

One thing we can all be sure of is that everyone in that town rushed out and paid that fee the next day!

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38 Nicole

It seems foolish from an externalities perspective to not put the house out because the flames can get the neighbor’s houses. I would hope they would save any peoples’ lives if someone was caught too.

If I were designing the policy, I would mandate that the house be put out but people who did not pay the fee would be billed for the entire cost of putting the fire out plus some additional surcharge. Just like ambulance services. It it were a really strong law, it could allow for wage garnishing or repo.

Another possibility would be to allow for foreclosure for homes that don’t pay the fee, like HOA do (I don’t giving HOA or local governments that kind of control though).

There’s a reason that most of these types of services are provided through general taxation.

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39 Khaleef Crumbley

Considering those externalities was the only reason why they came at all. If he didn’t have a neighbor that paid the fee so close, they might not have come at all.

I agree with your proposed solution. Make them pay the actual costs plus a surcharge!

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40 Funny about Money

True, they didn’t pay the $75 bill upfront. But they not only offered to pay on the spot, they offered to pay 6/6 times that: $500.

If there had been a couple of kids or an old lady in the house would they have stood there and watch them burn to death?

There’s a depression on. In rural areas, the depression has hit even harder than in the cities. It’s reasonable to suspect the homeowner didn’t pay the fee because he was cutting back every expense he could and so decided to take a chance that nothing would happen to his house.

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41 Khaleef Crumbley

Yeah, but the $75 wasn’t really about being compensated for the costs of fighting the fire. Even the $500 would have come up short. Since this was a private service offered by a neighboring city, the $75 was really an insurance premium. He didn’t pay the premium, so he wasn’t covered in the event of a fire.

He claims that he just forgot to pay the fee. I really do feel bad for him and for the firefighters who weren’t allowed to help him out.

I think that these types of services will be reevaluated in the future. Although, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.

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42 Roshawn @ Watson Inc

As sad as it seems, it is clear that the family wasn’t entitled to the service. It would have been a good deed for the fire department to help out, but I wonder if they wanted to spare other families the same pain by allowing this story to be used as an example. For instance, this is what happens when you let your coverage lapse. There may be a possible moral violation under the be a good neighbor clause. As to whether there will be a change in the policy, it may be a matter of how much ensuing media outcry there is following this tragedy.

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43 Khaleef Crumbley

I think that is a point that many are missing – this was a service provided by another city for a small fee. If you don’t pay the fee, you aren’t entitled to the service!

I’m sure that they received a lot of payments the next day after this fire!

I’m not sure what will be changed since this is essentially a private service.

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44 Techbud

Crazy Stuff. I understand the point about enforcing the rules and fee payment, because if they did put out the fire no one else would pay the fee.

But that is tough to just watch the house burn with pets inside. Those fire fighter must have been struggling with that decision.

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45 Khaleef Crumbley

Yep, I believe that it had to be a struggle for them.

Also agree with the point about no one paying the fee if they will provide the service anyway!

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46 Kay Lynn Akers

I understand why they didn’t but I do think people have a moral obligation to help in these type of emergencies.

Of course in our society, no good deed goes unpunished so they probably would have gotten fired or something.

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47 Khaleef Crumbley

Yeah, I believe that they wanted to help but were prohibited from doing so. It’s really bad because much of the scorn is falling on them for this!

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48 Penny Frugalista

Hate to admit it, but I see the point on both sides here. I just want to know how the firefighters could watch the home burn in good conscience. Okay, so the homeowner didn’t pay the $75 fee — he DID offer to pay that (and more) that day, albeit at the last minute. I’ve also read he’d paid it in years past, so I’m not sure if there was financial difficulties on his end.

On the other hand, what if hospitals refused to treat patients with emergency, life-threatening injuries or heart attacks (or other illnesses) who came in to the emergency room? By law, they can’t turn away patients with emergencies. You could consider a home on fire an emergency, too.

So yeah, I’m on the fence here.

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49 Khaleef Crumbley

He claimed that he just forgot to pay it this year. I honestly think that the firefighters had a very difficult time with this, but they were just following orders at that point.

You bring up a very good point about hospitals. They are required to treat all emergencies, and maybe the same could be applied here. However, the difference is that his town doesn’t have a fire department so another city came along and said, “we’ll offer our services to all your residents who will pay a small $75 fee each year”. So, in essence, this became a private service and those requirements no longer apply.

Yeah, definitely a tough one!

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50 shamica

this is unbelievable. Though the fire fighters did what they were told i would have like to see one of them act on faith. Or they could’ve accepted the money on site if it was really that crucial that you have to spray to pay.

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51 Khaleef Crumbley

I don’t think they city cared so much about the fee as the agreement. What I mean is that these services surely cost thousands of dollars – so the fee isn’t about being paid for the services. The fee acts as an insurance premium, so if they collect it from everybody, and only have to put out a few fires in that rural area they are fine.

No insurance company will allow you to take out a policy after the damage or loss occurs.

I definitely agree with you that the firefighters were just following orders.

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52 Jesse

Just imagine if there was a child inside and not a pet, there would be an even larger public outcry for change.

Your comparison to an insurance policy helps visualize the problem, but in most cases, insurance is about money and this fee is about life and death so it makes it more morally difficult to compare. Either way I think the firefighters should have taken the guys $500 and saved the house or at least the pets, they didn’t forget to pay a fee!

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53 Khaleef Crumbley

Yeah, maybe they will add a clause to this contract that states that they will act to save a life even if you don’t pay the fee – then they can just bill you for their services (and have the right to extract their charge from your insurance payout).

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54 Invest It Wisely

The funny thing is, this scenario is the kind of doomsday scenario that people always bring up whenever one talks about demonopolizing the government and allowing competing fee-based services.

However, it’s already a reality with monopolized tax-based services, where the consumer has much less say and much less choice than they would have with a demonopolized service economy! I also think that it’s pretty outrageous that the law REQUIRES the firemen to not help. I don’t know… maybe the fireman could have volunteered to put out the fire?

It’s one thing to not be covered if you don’t pay for your insurance, but it’s quite a second thing for fireman to travel to the fire and then just watch things play out.

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55 Khaleef Crumbley

I can definitely see people using this situation to argue against de-monopolizing the government in these services. But, you are right, we see horrible inefficiencies with the current system as well.

They probably wouldn’t have been able to “volunteer” to put it out since they were on duty – they were called to his neighbor’s house – plus, they would have had to use the department’s equipment to do so.

The fact that they were there is what makes the story so tough to call.

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56 Andrea

This is a really difficult one. For me, you can’t put a price on ethics though and I don’t you can put a price on life – animal OR human.

This story makes me sad!

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57 Khaleef Crumbley

Yeah, this was a tough one. I’m sure those firefighters felt terrible while standing there – but they were under orders. I think this might prompt a change in that system – unless the media outcry dies down!

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58 Mike - Saving Money Today

That’s messed up. Reminds me of a recent story in the NY area where a pregnant woman died in a restaurant because 2 paramedics who were present refused to help her because they were on their coffee break.

http://au.news.yahoo.com/a/-/mp/6614808/pregnant-woman-dies-after-paramedics-refuse-to-help/

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59 Khaleef Crumbley

Wow, that seems terrible! But it does make me wonder if they would have been protected from liability if there was damage done (or of it seemed like they caused her death – broken rib puncturing her lung during CPR or something). I hope it wasn’t because they were so heartless and cold!

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60 Crystal

It’s a matter of keeping their job. I bet every single one of the firefighters wanted to help but also had a family that relies on their paycheck. I think they should be able to legally try to save living creatures, but they are seriously put between a rock and a hard place with the legal issues. That sucks.

I hope this incident gathers enough press to make some changes with the policy, like it is $75 in advance or you have to cover every single fee if they do help in the future – I’m betting the hourly wage, water, gas for the truck, etc adds up to thousands and thousands of dollars…

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61 Khaleef Crumbley

I agree, the firefighters couldn’t really do anything about this. They were following protocol. I can imagine a case in the future where a firefighter does attempt to help and causes damages or injury and the homeowner sues! He’ll claim that he never “authorized” the help!

That may be a good solution – pay $75 now, or pay $10,000 (or whatever the actual costs are) later!

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62 Invest It Wisely

I don’t know. Clearly this homeowner was “authorizing” the help and even offered to pay $500. You guys are all right in that if the firefighters helped anyone, nobody would pay, but a law FORBIDDING them to help at all? It was the guy’s responsibility to pay, but it still seems wrong to just watch pets die and a house burn down. Would they be doing the same if there were old people in the house? Why not let the firefighters fight the fire as volunteers, at least, or let the guy agree to fronting the full costs??? I’m sure many of them wanted to help, but since the law left them with no options, they didn’t. What a bad situation…

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63 Khaleef Crumbley

Yeah, it’s really a bad situation. Hopefully, they will add that clause into the agreement with the residents so you have to pay to full costs if they help you without you paying the fee.

It would somehow have to be tied to the homeowners insurance so the fire department is paid first!

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64 Everyday Tips

This is a tough one. I bet it was hard on the firefighters themselves to not put out the fire. I do think they needed to go out there to protect the neighbors, that was the right thing to do.

You are totally right about the insurance thing though. I wonder if the owner’s homeowners policy will pay anything if he didn’t properly ‘insure’ the house by providing fire coverage. Why in the world did this person not pay in the first place? I hope he intentionally didn’t pay and it wasn’t some office screw up.

This may be an example of ‘learning by example’. I am betting a lot of people are paying that rural fire fee now.

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65 Khaleef Crumbley

That’s a good point about his insurance policy! They might have a clause like that since he lives in a rural area.

He claimed that he meant to pay it but just forgot. He said that he paid it in the previous year.

Yeah, I’m sure a lot of people made that payment the very next day!

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66 Hudson

I can’t believe that this is even possible, just because of $75 his house was burned out? Yes, they have to be paid, but out of moral obligation THEY should still render their Primary duty which is to KEEP every one’s home SAFE. I can’t believe it, totally disgusting.

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