on libertarianism and house fires.

The South Fulton Fire Department in Obion County, TN is making the news again because yet another non-subscriber in the county had their place burn down with the Fire Department standing by and not putting out the fire.

A lot of people in my Twitter stream–mostly my liberal-leaning writer friends–are linking to that article with comments like “The Libertarian dream”. I know that these folks are smart people, and seeing them boil the issue down to its emotional basis like that ticks me off a little.

Let’s break it down for a moment. There’s a town–South Fulton–with a fire department that is financed by the taxes of the townsfolk. The fire department provides coverage for the people of the town (not “for free”, as the article says, but paid for by their taxes). If you live outside of the town limits, the South Fulton FD does not provide coverage unless you pay an annual fee of $75, to cover the costs of out-of-area service. Gas is expensive, firemen want to get paid, someone needs to keep the lights on in the fire station, and all that. Fair enough, right? The FD is, after all, a resource of the town of South Fulton, paid for by its residents, and can’t be expected to provide services free of charge to people who don’t pay to support the fire department.

The two incidents so far where county residents had their houses burn down without help from the fire department–those were people hedging their bets. They chose to not pay the $75 for annual coverage for whatever reason, and they lost the wager. (Some people will say that these people probably couldn’t afford the coverage, but if you own a house, you can afford $75 a year for what is essentially insurance. I bet I could sift through the ruins of the latest burned-0ut house and find a fair number of items that are both a.) non-essential, and b.) worth more than $75.)

Now, why exactly is that such a horrible thing? What case could you possibly make for the Fire Department to put out the fires for people who chose not to pay the fee that wouldn’t result in a collapse of the system? If they had put the fire out anyway, few county residents would have paid the fee next year, knowing that when push comes to shove, the FD will turn on the hoses and go to work for free anyway. Then the only alternatives for the town of South Fulton are to either subsidize the fire service for the entire county, or cancel the scheme altogether and keep their services strictly for the taxpayers of South Fulton. In an ideal world, city and county could both afford all the fire trucks and manpower they need to service everyone. As things stand, the resources are limited, and they’ve made a reasonable compromise–the current “pay to spray” option. Which is the better alternative for the county folk–optional fire service at $75 a year, or no fire service at all for free?

It’s really easy to look at this purely from the emotional angle and say stuff like “Libertarian dream” with a sarcastic inflection. Yes, it’s bad that those people lost their house, but they rolled their dice and took their chances. Shield everyone from the consequences of bad decisions–and make no mistake, forgoing fire coverage over the price of a tank of gas is a monumentally bad one–and you take away the incentives to make good decisions. If you roll your eyes at anyone in that scenario for being “Libertarian”, it should be the homeowners, who acted in the most libertarian way of all–they were presented with a voluntary contract option, they chose to keep their money and reject the contract, and they got to live with the consequences of their decision, without the community having to shoulder the financial burden of their selfishness.


42 thoughts on “on libertarianism and house fires.

  1. bluntobject says:

    You missed the best part: the SFFD is a public department, tax-funded and all that. Honest-to-jesus private subscription-based FDs, like Rural/Metro, will cheerfully respond to a non-subscriber’s fire. They’ll charge out the wazoo, but they’re happy to have the business. It’s the public subscription-based FDs — probably not all of them, either — that show up only to protect nearby subscribers’ property.

  2. diane says:

    I don’t disagree with you, but would your stance change at all if there was substantial risk that someone would be injured or killed in the fire? Should the responding department at least make an effort to determine if everyone got out, and mount a rescue operation if they have not? (once everyone is out they can turn the hoses off again and let it burn).

    • Marko Kloos says:

      If you read the article all the way, you’ll see that the SFFD will act in life-threatening situations regardless of subscription status. They will save people from house fires, but they won’t save property.

      • diane says:

        I did, but must have missed it. Didn’t really think they would do otherwise. Can’t understand why people won’t protect their investment, especially for such a relatively low cost.

  3. Fred2 says:

    Do they offer an option to write a check, or accept credit cards, or accept a binding contract on the spot?

    Contract: You all the undersigned will pay us all (FireDept) the sum of X for putting out your hovel over a period of 5 years plus nominal interest, or the place & land is ours when you default.

    X – sum large enough to hurt morons who can’t do insurance math, but small enough to not be stupid expensive.Say $3,500? I dunno.

    • Ruth says:

      If I recall right, one of the articles I saw on it said there IS an option to pay for immediete service (and yes, its like $2k to start plus a grand or so for each additional span of time), though the article didn’t say what the acceptable payment methods were. The linked article doesn’t, and I can’t find the one I saw right this second to link to.

      What got me was the comment from the homeowner in the article I saw “we didn’t pay because we didn’t think it would happen to us”. Nice, accidents happen, thats life, bet she pays NEXT time.

      • Ruth says:

        Found the article, the policy for on the spot payment is an neighboring county: http://usnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/12/07/9272989-firefighters-let-home-burn-over-75-fee-again

      • bluntobject says:

        Last time this happened, the homeowner in question (who’d paid the fee in the past and even had the SFFD respond to a chimney fire) offered to pay “whatever it takes”, and was turned down. Charging an on-the-spot fee seems like a really obvious policy fix; I wonder why they don’t do it?

        • mikeb302000 says:

          They don’t do it because they’re hard-asses. They like to punish people who don’t play along. And guys like Marko and 95% of his commenters wiii support it.

          It’s absolutley unacceptable that the fire department stands by and watches a house burn because of what ‘s really a minor formality, it’s practically a token payment. Because they refused to pay, now the idiots in power, the firemen and their municipal overlords, punish them.

        • divemedic says:

          So Mike, I’m curious: If you allow someone to simply pay the fee AFTER they have a fire, then why on earth would ANYONE pay before? and if no one pays until and unless they have a fire, then how is the fire department going to pay for their equipment, fuel, and other expenses?

        • bluntobject says:

          Mike’s just signalling how morally superior he (thinks he) is to the rest of us, not making anything resembling a sensical argument.

          In this particular case, my understanding is that the SFFD is mostly funded by South Fulton taxpayers, so they wouldn’t have to subsist entirely upon on-the-spot fees. Also, as I mentioned in another comment, on-the-spot fees wouldn’t have to be high enough to pay for capital and maintenance costs, just high enough to scare most customers into paying the $75/yr subscription. I presume this is the way Rural/Metro works, though someone else mentioned that they’re tax subsidized (just like SFFD, though one hopes to a lesser degree).

          If I’m wrong about that, and homeowners would drop a $75/yr subscription and take their chances regardless of how high on-the-spot fees get, I’d love to see an example. I get that people tend to overvalue short-term costs (“I have to pay $75 to the SFFD even if I never need them?!”) and undervalue long-term benefits (“$75/yr is a small price to pay for fire protection if I ever need it”), but this sort of price discrimination works in other industries and it’s not obvious to me why it would fail completely here.

        • divemedic says:

          You won’t have to look far. Currently, fire and EMS departments across the country have about a 40% collection rate for transporting people to the hospital by ambulance. That situation has a lot of parallels with the current one. The law (EMTALA) requires EMS and emergency rooms to treat people regardless of their ability to pay. So now the ER of every urban hospital in the nation is crammed full of people who don’t and won’t pay.

          How would a fire fee be any different?

        • bluntobject says:

          Good comparison; I’m not looking to justify anything like EMTALA. I’m not suggesting that departments like SFFD be required to do anything, just that they have the option to accept on-the-spot payment for fire protection gigs. “What’s that? Sure, I’d love to put out that kitchen fire for fifty grand. Just go over there and talk to our finance rep; I’ll wait.”

          If some new law requires responding FDs to respond to incidents in their area of responsibility (whatever that is), then yeah, that’s a big flashing MORAL HAZARD sign and it’s going to eff things up. But if SFFD can continue to operate as per usual, plus respond to non-subscribers’ fires for a big damn fee (and — this is critical — not bother with non-subscribers who don’t want to pay the fee), I don’t see the problem. I don’t want to impose new responsibilities on SFFD, just give them the opportunity (if they choose to do so) to respond to non-subscribers in exchange for incredibly huge fees. To me, that seems like the best of both worlds. What am I missing?

        • divemedic says:

          @ blunt: Would a contract made under such conditions (duress, essentially) even be enforceable? Even if it were, how long before we see a news story screaming about how unfair the large fees are, and how cruel it is that the fire department is extorting these large fees from poor homeowners whose lives are burning.

          No, I believe that I, as the person in charge of that department could find an easy fix: I would just stop responding outside of city limits. The citizens of the county have, on more than one occasion, voted to not have a tax funded fire department, complain about fire fees, and are too apathetic to have a volunteer department. They are the same as the OWS idiots: they want other people to finance what they want. As a taxpayer of the city, I would not want to continue to fund a fire department that benefits freeloaders. Let them fund their own fire department.

  4. David says:

    You make a valid argument, but consider: The firefighters arrived on the scene, spending gas and presumably drawing pay, but then sat there and did nothing, even when the family was running in and out of their house to try and get their belongings out.

    Why did they even bother to show up? If they were concerned with keeping their costs down, they should have refused to respond to the call at all. Going out to the house and sitting there makes no sense. It’s not like they had to ask the residents whether they’d paid the fee or not (at least I hope that’s not the way this system works).

    And given the circumstances, why couldn’t the residents pay the fee at the time to get assistance? Okay, maybe that discourages other people from paying the fee beforehand – then why can’t the residents pay a premium on the fee? Did anyone ask if the individual firefighters would take a hundred bucks per “under the table” to pitch in?

    Did the residents even realize that they had to pay the fee in the first place? After all it’s optional, and people do ignore mail from firefighters sometimes; generally all I get are requests for donations to the fraternal order.

    I won’t say that the system is unworkable, but having the firefighters show up and do nothing is just bizarre. It feels like intimidation, of a sort: “Pay up or we’ll watch your house burn.” Perhaps they’re there in case the fire spreads to another house that did pay up, but then wouldn’t those residents want the fire department to stop the fire BEFORE it reaches their house? And there’s the obvious concern that a family whose house is burning down might be desperate enough to try to seize the fire truck, which leads to a whole slew of new problems.

    There are limits to what a community can do for stupid people. People live in tornado alleys, they build houses on flood plains, and they take their chances. But dangling assistance just out of reach isn’t a libertarian ideal, it’s just callousness. Make the family pay $150 or $300 or $1,000 and put the damn house out.

    • Marko Kloos says:

      I don’t think intimidation or callousness had anything to do with it. They got the 911 call and went out there in case it WAS a life-threatening event or one of the subscribing neighbors’ houses was in danger. When they saw that neither was the case, they stood down.

      Should they have given the homeowner the option to put the fire out for instant payment? How would that not be similarly perceived as blackmail? And they already gave the homeowner the option once–they just rejected it when they DIDN’T think they would need it. Could they be offering on-the-spot payment? Sure, but that’s up to the taxpayers of the burgh. Because they don’t offer the option, any response other than to stand down would have meant the collapse of the existing subscriber system.

      And as BluntObject pointed out: this is a *public* fire department, not a private one, so folks are baying up the wrong tree. They’re not playing by the rules of commerce and the evil profit motive, they’re playing by the rules set by the community that pays for the shiny trucks and the fire hoses.

      • David says:

        You’re correct about the problems with instant payment, which leads me to believe the community should change their rules to take into account people who don’t pay the annual fee. Penalize them with a stiffer service payment (billable) like a private fire department would: that brings in additional money to support the department, and probably earns the community a new subscriber for life. Standing by and letting the house burn down, on the other hand, provides minimal or no benefit to the community and creates a public relations nightmare.

        And I still take issue with the assumption that the residents actively refused fire service. That may very well be the case: I haven’t found any information on it one way or another. But ignorance of the requirement seems just as likely to me.

        Aside: Looking over my first post, I’m being a bit of a dick to the firefighters. I don’t think they deserve the blame and threats they’re getting; it seems they’re quite vulnerable to being fired over even speaking on the subject, so I doubt they could do anything to help without similarly risking their jobs. But I do think this policy needs to change, and Mayor David Crocker’s reaction to the incident isn’t winning me over.

        • Kristopher says:

          From what I had learned of the incident, the $75 / year fee was a heck of a lot less than the annual tax assessment people living in town were required to pay, or face having their home sold for delinquent taxes.

          They were offered a bargain. This idiot turned it down.

          The fire dept. should have been allowed to offer to fight the fire in return for 25% of the property.

        • Tam says:

          They weren’t “standing there watching the house burn”, they were standing there watching people “running in and out of” a burning building “to try and get their belongings”, (which I’m sure included an X-Box worth three years of fire coverage,) because they will save people regardless of whether they’ve paid or not, even if that person ran back in to get their television set.

    • divemedic says:

      The problem with a premium is that it is unworkable. The people who would refuse to pay the $75 and take their chances would multiply. The odds that a fire will happen at all are remote: The department I worked for had less than 300 fires a year in a city of 100K people. What this means is that the fee would have to be on the order of 6 figures to make it workable. Even Rural Metro gets a tax subsidy.

  5. […] On libertarianism and house fires (The Munchkin Wrangler) […]

  6. Jeff/zeeke42 says:

    The part I really don’t get is, wouldn’t the subscriber save the $75 fee and more in lower homeowners insurance costs? I get a significant discount because there’s a fire substation around the corner. I can’t imagine the insurance costs for a house with no fire service protection at all.

  7. Kristopher says:

    You don’t have to have homeowner’s insurance if the home is paid for.

    The person in question had a single-wide parked on his property outside of town.

    • ATLien says:

      That shoots it into supreme dunce territory: don’t have fire insurance on the most flammable house you could find.

  8. Ziggy says:

    But I MEANT to pay my house insurance……

    If I give you guys the $600 now, will you rebuild my place??????

    I really, REALLY meant to pay it and I’m real, REAL sorry I screwed the pooch on that one…

  9. perlhaqr says:

    It takes an entire bathtub full of balls and ignorance to call the situation of a publicly funded fire company refusing to take immediate payment to put out a fire “the libertarian dream”.

    • Kristopher says:

      If this was really ‘libertopia”, competing fire fighting companies would arrive, and place bids for putting out the fire, if the property owner did not have a 911 subscription paid.

  10. 8notch says:

    I am fully aware that this is not the case, but I can’t help thinking of the private fire fighters in ancient Rome that were slaves for Marcus Licinius Crassus. He would go by with his firefighters and offer to put the fire out if the homeowner sold him the property for pennies on the dollar. As the flames reached higher, he also pitched his offer to buy to the guy’s neighbors, who were watching the fire head towards their houses. He was very quickly the richest man in Rome, perhaps the entire world in his lifetime.

    • David says:

      This quote from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series covers a similar scenario:

      “The Guild of Firefighters had been outlawed by the Patrician the previous year after many complaints. The point was that, if you bought a contract from the Guild, your house would be protected against fire. Unfortunately, the general Ankh-Morpork ethos quickly came to the fore and fire fighters would tend to go to prospective clients’ houses in groups, making loud comments like “Very inflammable looking place, this” and “Probably go up like a firework with just one carelessly-dropped match, know what I mean?”

  11. In a Libertarian society, fire departments would most likely be build and maintained by insurance companies, not taxpayers.

  12. Harry says:

    A friend owns a “fire medallion” dating from the late 18th century. Benjamin Franklin was among those who created subscription fire service in Philadelphia, which eventually morphed into public fire service because it didn’t make sense to have 5 different fire companies (notice that word – “companies”?) servicing the same block. The front door medallions were issued by the fire companies to identify those houses that had signed up for service from which fire company.

    I’d think any homeowner’s insurance company with more than a single digit IQ would simply add $75 to the annual premium to get fire coverage to minimize its potential loss. Assuming, of course, that the homeowner actually bought insurance.

    I’d be curious to know how South Fulton FD tracks which houses subscribe and which don’t. I’d hope their ID system was bulletproof.

  13. Billy says:

    A couple of problems with the pay on the spot solution. If you did that no one would pay just wait to see if they needed the fire department and pay at that moment. I don’t care how much you pay on the spot that will not allow you to purchase new equipment and maintain your current gear.

    As far as did the department stand by and watch? In this case no. The call was on a road that starts in the city and then goes outside the city limits. When the department realized that the fire was outside the city they canceled never seeing the house. The truck the homeowners saw was a truck from another state.
    The chief’s in that county have begged the county to set up a fire tax so this doesn’t happen again. In all reality a county wide tax would mean that most people would pay less than the $75 a year and this would fix the problem. To add one last thing in this county there is NO county fire protection the only fire protection is from the volunteer departments that cover the cities and all fire proctection outside corporate limits is on a fee system.

    • bluntobject says:

      If you did [pay on the spot] no one would pay just wait to see if they needed the fire department and pay at that moment.

      You wouldn’t need to make the pay-on-the-spot fee high enough to cover all costs if everyone stopped paying annual fees, just high enough to scare most homeowners into paying the fee. (Besides which, SFFD would still be supported mostly by the South Fulton tax levy.) I imagine the risk-averse folks in Obion County would keep paying their $75/yr, and SFFD could collect on a few calls from people who decided to risk it and lost their bet. Simple price-discrimination model, like airlines charging different rates to customers who wait for ticket sales vs. booking at the last minute.

  14. Firehand says:

    Have an acquaintance who made accused me- after pointing out some bit of government nannyism/corruption of “You should love Somalia, its the libertarian dream!”
    Yeah, I used to think she was smarter than that.

  15. Samsam von Virginia says:

    A few years ago I dropped the Collision coverage on one of our older vehicles… that’s the coverage to fix YOUR vehicle when the collision is YOUR fault. Recently, my wife was in a collision that was judged her fault. Thus it was up to us to fix the vehicle out of pocket.

    I don’t see how this is any different from a house fire, other than the house being a bit more expensive. The whole situation is actually NO DIFFERENT from other actions that routinely take place.

  16. Justthisguy says:

    They could, like , form a Volunteer Fire Department, and look out for each other?

    P.s. Marko, it is a good thing you are not a Finn, but a self-controlled German, what with the puuko and the likker.

  17. Justthisguy says:

    P.s. I am not afraid of making ethnic jokes, at least on the Internet.

  18. NYEMT says:

    Didn’t see an important point mentioned in the previous 40(!?!) comments; if someone else said it and I missed it, I apologize. The county in question has placed into referendum in the past a proposal to add fire tax to the county tax items, which would permit funding a county fire service. Voters have (more than once, IIRC – I can’t remember where I read it, but I’m pretty sure one of the articles after the first incident mentioned it) voted NOT to add the fire tax (which in most cases would be only slightly more, and in quite a few, less per-household than the $75 fee) and to continue the fee-for-service arrangement.

  19. FireMedic says:

    NYEMT hit the nail on the head. Everyone else seems to be debating why their fire department functions the way is does and weather or not people should be allowed to pay something last minute. If the citizens of Obion county really wanted to they could vote to pay more in taxes and have a career department which would cover everyone. That’s what the citizens of my county have done (and I’m thankful for that because it provides me with a job). If the citizens choose not to have a fully funded fire department, and choose not to pay the annual fee for the system that they chose, don’t whine about it. Do I see it as a problem, yes. If I lived there, I would actively be trying to change the system. But I’d also pay the $75.

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