A rural Tennessee fire chief says Obion County firefighters are being unduly demonized for letting a man's home burn because he hadn't paid a $75 municipal fee.
The fee, however, is not the best way to protect rural homes, said Bob Reavis, chief of the Hornbeak Volunteer Fire Department. The situation may have been avoided if the county had a tax to cover rural fire protection.
The firefighters' decision to follow orders and let the doublewide mobile home owned by Gene Cranick burn to the ground Sept. 29 while saving the property of a neighbor who did pay the subscription has prompted debate as the event has gained nationwide media attention.
Reavis, whose fire department was not the one involved with the home burning, said it is not firefighters' fault the Cranick home burned.
"The fault is the failure of Cranick family not to pay that subscription," Reavis said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by other county fire officials and mayors. "Subscriptions are not necessarily the way to go," he said of the fee.
"The same thing could have happened anywhere" among three Obion County municipalities that rely on subscription fees to cover rural areas outside their cities' borders. Hornbeak and four others do not require subscriptions. The eight cities' provide protection as the county does not operate its own fire department, Reavis said, but 85 percent of fire responses are in rural areas.
Hate emails and national media have "unduly condemned, criticized, and threatened" Obion County fire chiefs, Reavis said.
Reavis said he operates his all-volunteer, unpaid fire department on $8,000 a year.
Across the county, no cities' tax dollars fund rural fire protection, he said. That's common in many U.S. rural areas, Reavis said, although the notion is not necessarily widely known among people living in urban areas.
A plan for a tax that would cover rural fire protection was rejected, he said, as county officials kept pushing municipalities to opt for subscription plans.
Reavis said he wants local residents to get involved and find a solution to rural fire protection.
"No firefighter wants to stand by and watch his neighbor's home burn," Reavis said.
Cranick, 68, told Keith Olbermann on MSNBC on Tuesday evening, "I'm no freeloader, I've worked all my life for everything I've got. It happens to anybody, I don't care, you forget things and I did. I suffered the consequences for it."
Paulette Cranick, 67, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that she doesn't blame the firefighters following orders.
"You can't blame them if they have to do what the boss says to do," Paulette Cranick. "I've had firemen call and apologize."
The fire started when the Cranicks' grandson was burning trash near the family home. As it grew out of control, the Cranicks called 911, but the fire department from the nearby city of South Fulton would not respond, because Cranick had not paid the annual fee.
The International Association of Fire Fighters condemned the South Fulton Fire Department for their actions and also criticized the South Fulton's policy.
"Because of South Fulton's pay-to-play policy, firefighters were ordered to stand and watch a family lose its home."
Radio and TV talk show host Glenn Beck defended the fire department letting Cranick's home burn down.
"If you don't pay your $75 then that hurts the fire department," Beck said in response to the blaze. "They can't use those resources and you would be sponging off of your neighbor's $75 if they put out your neighbor's house and you didn't pay for it."
"As soon as they put out the fire of somebody who didn't pay the $75, no one will pay the $75," he said.
Fellow conservative commentator Daniel Foster, meanwhile, said that he had no problem in principle with the "opt-in government" philosophy behind the decision to withhold fire services to those who hadn't paid the required fee.
Morally, however, the issue was quite different, he wrote in National Review Online:
"But forget the politics: what moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground when 1) they have already responded to the scene; 2) they have the means to stop it ready at hand; 3) they have a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their trouble?"
Cranick and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat. The fire fee policy dates back 20 or so years and is common in rural areas.
'Hurt the fire department'
South Fulton's mayor said that the fire department can't let homeowners pay the fee on the spot, which Cranick offered to do, because the only people who would pay would be those whose homes are on fire.
Firefighters did eventually show up on the scene, but only to fight the fire on the neighboring property, whose owner had paid the fee.
Kelly Edmison, fire chief of nearby Union City, said a fire tax would be better than the current fee system.
"Without a doubt, the best is a fire tax," Olbermann quoted Edmison as saying. "The last thing a firefighter wants to do is not be able to help when they'd like to."
Other locals have been sympathetic during this trying period, Cranick told Olbermann.
"Most everybody has been compassionate and neighborly," he told MSNBC. "I understood some of the firefighters went home and were sick. Some of them even cried over it."
"I appreciate it," he said.
Cranick, who is living in a trailer on his property, says his insurance policy will help cover some of his lost home.
Cranick has received emergency money to cover immediate costs and the insurance will cover all damage and property losses, his son, Todd, told local media.
Paulette Cranick said the family received offers of help but that the aid isn't needed.
"We have insurance and are happy everyone is alive," she said.