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October 04, 2010

Bonus Points

...for gratuitous use of the Eminem lyric in the title.

If you want to see government services taken over by the private sector, sooner or later those inconvenient real world consequences will tend to rear their ugly heads.

We've just gotten used to never having to deal with them. Someone's always there to pick up the pieces for us.

Update: a bit of context.

The situation is this: The city of South Fulton’s fire department, until a few years ago, would not respond to any fires outside of the city limits — which is to say, the city limited its jurisdiction to the city itself, and to city taxpayers. A reasonable position. Then, a few years ago, a fire broke out in a rural area that was not covered by the city fire department, and the city authorities felt bad about not being able to do anything to help. So they began to offer an opt-in service, for the very reasonable price of $75 a year. Which is to say: They greatly expanded the range of services they offer. The rural homeowners were, collectively, better off, rather than worse off. Before the opt-in program, they had no access to a fire department. Now they do.

And, for their trouble, the South Fulton fire department is being treated as though it has done something wrong, rather than having gone out of its way to make services available to people who did not have them before.

As I said in the comments, this story illustrates the difficulty of reconciling competing interests with the true cost of various public policy options in a very graphic way.

This is much more than a dry, theoretical discussion about intellectual consistency - it's the kind of conversation we ought to be having more often in the public policy arena: one where people on all sides of an issue confront the unpleasant fact that life is full of tradeoffs (many of which are far too easy to dismiss when they are still hypothetical in nature).

Posted by Cassandra at October 4, 2010 09:14 PM

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Comments

Volunteer firemen are one of the great things about this country. There's a place for mercenaries; it isn't in the fire department.

Posted by: Grim at October 4, 2010 10:52 PM

It's a little more complicated than the $75. The fire department's insurance may not (probably will not) cover injury to firefighters, trucks, tools, ... or lawsuits resulting at a fire at a non-paying location.

This sucks, it really does, don't get me wrong. It's a losing bet to take, take it they did, and lose they did.

Posted by: htom at October 5, 2010 12:07 AM

Hm. I need to ask my dad how they did the fire department back in Cedarville. I know it was all volunteer, but I also know there was a pretty high quality of folks, too.

Posted by: Foxfier at October 5, 2010 01:26 AM

The VFD in one town I lived in was superb.

In the adjacent town, the VFD had the rep of never having lost a foundation...

Posted by: BillT at October 5, 2010 06:18 AM

It's a little more complicated than the $75. The fire department's insurance may not (probably will not) cover injury to firefighters, trucks, tools, ... or lawsuits resulting at a fire at a non-paying location.

I agree that there's probably more to this.

I found this a fascinating story for many reasons. One is all the talk about how much better off the world would be if government got out of the business of taxing us and providing services with our tax dollars (whether or not we opt in).

I stopped writing about immigration reform a long time ago because I truly believe that despite all the heartburn over illegal immigrants, most Americans are NOT willing to actually see immigration law rigorously enforced.

I suspect the same is true with a lot of talk about the size of government. We all believe it has gotten too big - there's not much legitimate dispute about that. And I agree that police and firefighters are exactly the sort of basic services that fall within the proper role of government.

We have a VFD out here, and I give them money every time they ask (usually around $75-100). They ask at least once a year. But I've noticed that most people don't.

I think there's a huge difference between letting a house burn down and not rescuing a person trapped in a burning house. Had they done the latter, I'd be less sanguine about the whole thing.

But this kind of story really puts the test to conservative (and more importantly, libertarian) rhetoric - OK, you say you want to let the market run everything - now how willing are you to live with the real world consequences of that? Because often, they're not pretty.

Are you willing to see lots of people made destitute because of a single mistake? Because that's how the real world works in the absence of a safety net beyond what family/friends willingly provide.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 5, 2010 07:55 AM

There was a case in France where an aviation museum burned down because two fire departments couldn't agree whose jurisdiction it fell within. I'm pretty sure that both of these FDs would have been government agencies.

Posted by: david foster at October 5, 2010 08:06 AM

That's a great example of government failing its duty to its citizens.

I don't think that's the case here: what duty did the city of South Fulton as a taxpayer funded entity owe to people who don't pay South Fulton taxes and don't live in South Fulton?

I would argue: none.

There seems to be some unspoken assumption that people living outside South Fulton had some sort of right to expect the SF fire department to protect their personal/real property, or that because the SFFD *could* have done something, they should have.

That's one hell of a slippery slope :p

Posted by: Cassandra at October 5, 2010 08:26 AM

The whole world is a slippery slope, slip sliding in the maw of the Beast.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at October 5, 2010 09:11 AM

Htom's point at the top of this thread beat me to it, and Daniel Foster's point about the uninsured medical procedure is flawed. The doctor performing the procedure is not at risk of his life when he agrees to perform the procedure on promise of payment in full. These firemen do put their lives at risk when they fight fires. That they volunteered to put their lives at risk is irrelevant. They agreed, under the same agreement of which Cranick was fully aware, to do so for those who had opted in for the fire coverage. He chose not to be covered until the conflagration was in progress. He knew the consequences; he was just hoping to free ride. It's like the poker player who lost the bet, and after everyone has shown their cards, cries out, "Oh wait--I have this ace up my sleeve--let me play that."

I don't know the terrain in that area, but it's entirely possible that the fire department was on scene "anyway" solely to protect other property from a spreading fire.

As Cassandra points out a bit earlier, this situation puts to the test the sincerity of conservatives and libertarians who say everything should be fee-based. Here is a case of a service being fee-based, and Cranick chose not to pay the fee. Having already declined, before the fact, to participate in this community of fire coverage, on what basis should the fire department (or whomever gave the order) believe that this person will pay a higher fee after the fact?

In this case, I say that the town and the fire department behaved properly. "Are You Gonna Stand There And Watch Me Burn?" You, maybe not. Your property? You bet. If mercenaries don't belong in a fire department (or in a police department), then don't make them mercenaries by putting their services onto a fee basis. Here might be one of the few areas where taxing everyone to provide a service to everyone might be legitimate.

Eric Hines

(Umm, how many bonus points?)

Posted by: E Hines at October 5, 2010 11:02 AM

If mercenaries don't belong in a fire department (or in a police department), then don't make them mercenaries by putting their services onto a fee basis. Here might be one of the few areas where taxing everyone to provide a service to everyone might be legitimate.

I think that's a great point.

Sometimes we go overboard on the whole limited govt. thing, mostly from a failure to consider all the competing interests involved. The problem is that there's no hard and fast limiting principle to contain the expansion of govt. services. Which is undoubtedly why everyone is quoting that Burke quote about example being mankind's best teacher (he will learn from no other).

Posted by: Cassandra at October 5, 2010 11:13 AM

The problem is that there's no hard and fast limiting principle to contain the expansion of govt. services.

This might work: anyone who volunteers to be in government--take that person out and shoot him. Draft someone to be in government, whether that worthy wants to be, or not. And when the term of service is up, take that person out and shoot him.

[cue Bill the Cat]

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at October 5, 2010 11:30 AM

This whole story points to the failure of the county to plan accordingly for fire protection and emergency response.

Thus the half-assed subscription solution to their negligence.

According to their 2008 development plan, a county-wide fire department will be developed.

link:

http://troy.troytn.com/Obion%20County%20Fire%20Department%20Presentation%20Presented%20to%20the%20County%20Commission.pdf

Posted by: Craig at October 5, 2010 12:55 PM


This whole story points to the failure of the county to plan accordingly for fire protection and emergency response.

Craig, you are so full of crap. Try reading your own link:

According to survey information, over 75% of all municipal fire department’s structure calls are rural. All fire departments in Obion County charge a $500.00 fee per call in rural areas, but collections are less than 50% and the fire departments have no way of legally collecting the charge. Therefore, the service was provided at the expense of the municipal tax payer.

So 75% of the demand currently comes from folks who are unwilling or unable to pay for the service.

I wonder how many of those folks have Cable TV, internet, or spend more than $75 a year on non-necessary items?

It's called choice.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 5, 2010 01:02 PM

Put another way:

$75 a year amounts to $6.75 a month.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 5, 2010 01:04 PM

Cassandra,

The current system sucks, that's why they are going to change it.

That's what plan says in plain black and white:

"Scope of Project:
• Utilize apparatus, personnel, fire stations and equipment of existing 8 municipal fire departments to provide countywide fire protection."


"Explanation of the countywide fire protection plan:

Our common goal is to provide fire protection to all areas of Obion County without discrimination from lack of insurance, lack of subscription, ability to pay, or the decision that it’s outside of a fire department’s designated area of operation."

"Fire Protection is only one of the benefits of a county-wide fire plan. Emergency response
to all hazards, insurance savings for homeowners, establishment of county-wide training for
firefighters, and staying caught up with the growth of the county are much needed."

Posted by: Craig at October 5, 2010 01:29 PM

Fire services are actually one of the few areas (like policing) where one can never truly opt-in or opt-out of the benefits except in extremely rural settings (and as such, I believe, is a legitimate role of Gov't).

Let's say that Neighbor Able pays for the service and Neighbor Baker does not.

Let's say that Able's house catches fire. If it is left to burn it is almost a certainty that the fire would spread to Baker's house as well. But since Able has paid, the fire is put out and Baker's house remains safe. Baker receives a benefit of a service he has not paid for: He is freeloading (even without the FD taking direct action on his behalf). Baker could not fully "opt-out".

Let's say that instead of Able's house catching fire, it is Baker's instead. Since Baker has not paid for fire service it is allowed to burn. It is not until the fire spreads to Able's property that the fire service that Able has paid for will act. And since the fire service will not address the cause of the fire (Baker's burning house) but only treat Able's property, more of Able's property is damaged than would have if the FD had responded to Baker's house. Despite Able paying for Fire Services, his interests are still not adequately covered. To do that, Able would also have to pay for Fire Services for Baker. Able could not fully "opt-in".

The degree to which one can opt-in/out depends mostly on population density. If Able and Baker each live on 1000 acres of land then a fire on one may easily burn itself out wholly upon one property or another and thus their risks may, in fact, be independent of each other. On the otter heiny, if Able and Baker live in adjacent townhomes their risks are almost completely dependent on the other.

Back to this case in particular. If Tom isn't careful, what he advocates for will simply result in the City scrapping it's county opt-in program completely. Then they'll watch everyone in the county's house burn instead of just some.

Yep, that'll be better. :-|

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at October 5, 2010 05:53 PM

It is not until the fire spreads to Able's property that the fire service that Able has paid for will act. And since the fire service will not address the cause of the fire (Baker's burning house) but only treat Able's property, more of Able's property is damaged than would have if the FD had responded to Baker's house.

I think your analogy here breaks down in the following way. I speculated earlier that the fire department may have responded to Cranick's fire in order to prevent its spread to a neighbor's property/house, that neighbor having paid the requisite fee. Let's say, for the sake of this discussion, that that was true. The fire department, on scene, will not wait until the fire actually has spread to the neighbor's stuff and lit it off before the fire personnel on scene respond. It will respond proactively to prevent its spread--watering down the intervening ground, watering the walls of the neighboring house, spraying water into the air to dampen sparks that may have burst the surly bonds, etc.

Cranick still doesn't fully opt out, but the cost to him, and to the community at large, is trivial, and Cranick's gain from this free riding is equally trivial. It's also true that the neighbor does not fully opt in in this scenario, but in a different way. To the extent that the two are geographic neighbors--i.e., a few 10s of feet separate their houses, rather than 1000 acres--then the neighbor's property value is damaged by the burned out hulk next door. In a rural setting, though, this would be less of a damage.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at October 5, 2010 06:35 PM

My brother in law was once member of a rural Volunteer Fire Department. Let me just say that parts of the above arguments are amusing when confronted with reality.
A Volunteer Fire Dept. is actually nothing of the sort, in reality. For example, my BIL was an expert auto mechanic, and was recruited for the purpose of taking care of the fire dept. equipment and keeping it certified (and he was grossly taken advantage of and underpaid-he quit after aboutr five years of that stuff). Yes, this is expensive, even if your dept is using second hand or old equipment. States still require certification of equipment. Pumper trucks in rural areas are frequently (usually) far away from a fire hydrant. Which is why many farmers build ponds, because rural VFD's can throw a hose into a pond and pump water out to put out a fire
Some members of the VFD were also extremely irresponsible about using equipment off road to reach a fire (meaning they drove too fast off road and damaged trucks, etc., frequently).
It is also very likely that personal home-owners insurance is based on the availibility of any kind of fire protection (mine is, fer shure), and that their home-owners policy may indeed require them to subscribe to a VFD service to maintain a lower rate. On more than one occasion, my BIL's VFD did not answer a call because it was from someone who did not subscribe to their service and the fire was not life-threatening.

Fire departments are expensive but somewhat necessary beasts. Equipment and maintenance is incredibly expensive, plus salaries, insurance, etc. $75 a year is a bargain to subscribe to a VFD service. The "victim" in this story was a cheap idiot.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at October 5, 2010 08:34 PM

I speculated earlier that the fire department may have responded to Cranick's fire in order to prevent its spread to a neighbor's property/house, that neighbor having paid the requisite fee. Let's say, for the sake of this discussion, that that was true. The fire department, on scene, will not wait until the fire actually has spread to the neighbor's stuff and lit it off before the fire personnel on scene respond. It will respond proactively to prevent its spread

1) You are assuming that such measures would be effective.
2) You are assuming that such measures actually occur.

While the first may or may not be true, the second, at least in this case, was not:

This fire went on for hours because garden hoses just wouldn't put it out. It wasn't until that fire spread to a neighbor's property, that anyone would respond.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at October 6, 2010 09:37 AM

But this kind of story really puts the test to conservative (and more importantly, libertarian) rhetoric - OK, you say you want to let the market run everything - now how willing are you to live with the real world consequences of that? Because often, they're not pretty.

Life's not pretty. On this one, I'll stick with my libertarian principles. The city offered a service they were not required to. Good for them. The homeowner decided to pocket less than $7 a month betting that his house would not catch on fire. His choice. He bet wrong. That's sad. But he made his choice.

Just like folks who refuse to purchase flood insurance and whine until the government "feels bad for them" and covers the cost of water damage after a disaster at public expense, they should instead take responsibility for their decisions and pay for their own damages. One of the central principles of libertarianism is that the trade-off for owning yourself is the sole responsibility for your decisions is your own.

Posted by: MikeD at October 6, 2010 12:00 PM

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