Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Justice in Burning Houses?

One of the ideas I read in A Theory of Justice recently was something to the effect of "[The theory] enables one to distinguish what is good from what is right." I was trying to come up with a way to apply that and found nothing. Not a thing and then I remembered something I read earlier on today and I suddenly, I was saved. Here we go.

First things first. All of the facts I'm dropping are according to a Mother Jones article, viewable here.

I'm not sure how I avoided this juicy little tidbit until now. Apparently, a fire department truck in Obion County, TN, showed up to the scene of a burning building (the Cranick's), then watched it burn. On the face of it, that sounds horrible. A fire department is there to help people and save each other from drastic harm from fire. It's insulting, outrageous and unthinkable. This feels wrong on a gut level. The emotion I felt was disgust when I read the story.

Then the details come out.

Turns out the county doesn't offer a fire service and contracts out with the nearest town, South Fulton to provide one. South Fulton's fire department is subsidized by tax dollars, but where the Cranick's lived did not pay those taxes, but instead the county had an agreement with the town, that for $75 a year, the town's trucks would come out to Obion County. The Cranick's didn't pay the fee, and so calls that went to the fire department went unanswered.

Which, reading that last sentence, sounds horrible. It's callous. The fire department only responded when the fire reached the neighbors', a family who had paid the fee. Still, it feels ridiculous. The fire department sat back and watched it burn, because the guy hadn't paid a fee? That's unconscionable.

Well, the county did have a proposal in 2008 to raise funds to converge all the county fire departments and extend service to the county, by raising property taxes less than 1%, a meter tax increase or a subscription service. In short: the Cranicks knew they weren't covered in the case of fire by the county, and then refused a $75 annual fee to be covered by the city closest to them in the case of a fire. When the fire in the Cranick's began to endanger the nearby house which had paid the $75 fee, the fire department did show up to protect their house.

When asked why he didn't pay the nominal fee, Gene Cranick said: "I thought they'd come out and put it out, even if you hadn't paid your $75, but I was wrong." So: The family chose not to insure their property, and then when the thing they didn't have coverage for happened, they called up the fire department and the fire department had to tell them no, they hadn't paid the $75 annual fee, they weren't coming.

From other news reports, it doesn't sound like anyone was in the house when it was on fire, in which case the fire department probably would have responded, regardless of whether the Cranicks paid their fee or not. But, it's not good that the fire department came to the scene of the fire and watched, but it was the right thing to do. It proves a couple points:

1) If persons want play the odds on whether your house will catch fire and save $75 a year, they can, bug ought not to complain when the odds don't come out like they expect.
2) The fire department needs to be able to count on a set amount of money every so often to function. Paying as you go doesn't work for something that needs a lot of equipment and expertise at a constant state of readiness.
3) No, seriously, this is why disaster coverage exists, and perhaps ought to be impossible to opt out of, because no one plans for their house to catch fire.

The media gets a eye-popping headline out of this by painting the Cranick family as the only aggrieved party here, but really, the South Fulton Fire Department made a really tough call. They didn't want to be taken advantage of in a situation where no human lives were at risk. That doesn't make anybody evil and it certainly doesn't make the firefighters scum.

I'm not sure why it took me this long to use Auto Tune the News (it is exactly what it advertises itself to be) here, but the chorus of "it's the smoke, it's the smoke" works well here. It's not political so much as silly. Well, Senator Junkie Einstein begs to differ, but that's another story. Enjoy.

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