October 14, 2010

by Robert Wilson

Some situations can be summed up as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

Such is the case for the volunteer fire department of Obion County, Tenn. when they were forced by regulations to stand aside and watch as the home of Gene Cranick burned to the ground Sept. 29 because Cranick failed to pay an annual fee of $75 for fire protection.

Like most topics worth writing about, the story has created controversy. Oct. 5, in his Yahoo blog “The Upshot,” Brett Michael Dykes said the debate is of an ideological nature between parties.

Conservative National Review writer Daniel Foster argued against Obion County’s “laissez-faire approach to firefighting” while another conservative Kevin Williamson attacked Cranick, calling him just one of many of the world’s “freeloaders and ingrates” who deserved his misfortune.

On the other side of the spectrum, Zaid Jilani, blogger for liberal group Think Progress railed against the “conservative ideology” of serving “the well-off and privileged.”

However, this story goes beyond the mere and often conflicting ideas of political groups; it is a matter of morality in relation to one’s job responsibilities.

Dykes also quoted Foster as asking “what moral theory” allowed the firefighters to simply stand by and watch the house burn despite having all the necessary resources to put the blaze out. In fact, the only time they took action was when the fire was encroaching on the property of Cranick’s neighbor, who paid the fee.

To make matters worse, Cranick reportedly pleaded with the operator to pay anything they wanted if they took care of his home, but to no avail.

The fee, which has been in place for 20 years, is required because no cities in the county, according an MSNBC article, use tax dollars to pay for rural protection; thus, rural areas are required to fund their own protection by paying a subscription fee.

The firefighters involved have received hate e-mails and, says Hornbeak fire chief Bob Reavis in Obion County, has been “condemned, criticized, and threatened.”

I think we’d all like to believe, had it been us, we would, and simply could, allow our morals to lead us in stepping forward despite the rules and putting out the fire ourselves, but how often do we have opportunities to break rank and have the advantages outweigh the risks? After all, the firefighters were acting according to rules.

Besides the potential of being fired, there is also the possibility, as conservative radio host Glenn Beck discussed, of people, after seeing an unpaid house being saved, following suit and also stop paying, which would hurt the fire department.

On the other hand, Cranick did not simply lose material possessions in the fire; he also lost his three dogs and cat. It is hard for me to see how $75 balances out the loss of thousands of dollars and years of memories.

Of course, there is another big question to this whole issue: with a $75 fee that is paid only once a year, how could Cranick forget about it? Fire protection seems like something you’d mark down on your calendar.

Reavis said the fee is not the most effective solution and wants to get local residents involved. According to the same MSNBC article, a plan for a tax to cover rural areas was rejected in favor of those areas paying for subscriptions.

In the meantime, Cranick has received compensation from insurance and is living in a trailer on his property. Offers of help from neighbors and apologies from firefighters have poured in; also, Cranick is aware some of the firefighters were “sick” about the incident and even “cried over it.”

The precedent has been set and the emotional penance is being served. Let’s hope he learns to save some of that money.

Robert Wilson is a junior journalism major from Alexandria who serves as associate managing editor for The Tech Talk. E-mail comments to rww0@latech.edu.