Ben Franklin Would Have Let the House Burn Down, Too
Yesterday, in a rural part of northwestern Tennessee (fairly close to Missouri), a fire department refused to put out the fire for a house that had not paid its annual fire bill. Firefighters arrived at the scene and just let the house burn until it began to threaten the neighbor’s house — who had paid the bill — at which point they sprung into action. This has been getting a great deal of attention in the media and blogosphere; I first saw the story on Channel 4 last night.
I was curious whether the fire department in this case was a private company (many areas in Tennessee make use of privatized fire departments). However, as best I can determine from the city’s website, it is a standard municipal fire department, rather than a private contractor. But should they have put out the fire anyway, and just sent the family a bill afterward?
The easy answer is “yes,” but that is simple to say when you are not the one responsible for putting out the fire. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous act, and expecting someone else to put out a fire for people who have not fulfilled their end of a contract is rather presumptuous. It is important to note that the particular fire in question did not occur within the city limits of the responding fire department. Although they don’t have to do so, the department agrees to serve people outside the city limits who pay an annual bill.
Ben Franklin would not have put the fire out. When I visited Philly in 2000 for a certain convention, I took the city’s historic tour. I remember the guide talking about how the fire department / insurance company (which Franklin founded) would not put out your fire if they arrived at your house and saw that you had not paid the bill that year.
I think Daniel Hamermesh at the Freakonomics blog makes a good point about the differences between rural and urban areas. In a rural area, you may be able to distinguish between houses that are far apart. In an urban area, the threat of the fire rapidly expanding to other homes is too great, so a more efficient way to manage risk is to charge for the service via taxes to make sure that everyone receives proper fire service. I can agree with that, but I see nothing wrong with the way that the department in Tennessee acted.