Owner Didn't Pay Fee, So Firefighters Let Home Burn

fromWKMS

Obion County, Tenn., is not a place that often generates national news. But the rural community has been thrust into the spotlight after firefighters refused to extinguish a house fire because the owner hadn't paid the required $75 fee to the city fire department.

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Firefighters in northwestern Tennessee did something unusual last week: They refused to put out a house fire and stood and watched as it burned down. The firefighters were apparently under orders not to act, because the homeowner had not paid a $75 fire service subscription fee.

Chad Lampe of member station WKMS explains.

(Soundbite of a crackling fire)

CHAD LAMPE: A local NBC TV reporter arrived on the scene and asked the firemen why they weren't fighting the fire, which had been blazing for more than an hour.

Unidentified Man #1: This house is burning to the ground. Why didnt you guys respond?

Unidentified Man #2: The city manager will make a statement in the morning. You all need to see him in his office.

LAMPE: The fire started in a burn barrel by a shed outside Paulette and Gene Cranick's home. They weren't there, only their 21-year-old grandson, Lance, who also lives there. He set the fire to burn some garbage and then went inside for a quick shower.

Mr. LANCE CRANICK: When I got out of the shower, I heard kind of like a popping noise. I looked out the kitchen window and the shed here was already pretty much engulfed in flames. You know, there really wasn't no saving it. But the corner of the house wasnt on fire at the time. And I ran out, you know, kind of started spraying, you know, the water hose and I called 911.

LAMPE: Dispatchers told Cranick the fired department couldnt respond because his grandparents had not paid an annual $75 fire subscription fee.

They live just outside the South Fulton City limits, but they can pay a fee in order to use the South Fulton City firefighting service. The Cranicks say they simply forgot.

A neighbor had paid the fee so firemen showed up because the fire was threatening their property. The neighbors offered thousands of dollars to the firefighters, who wouldnt budge.

The Cranicks lost everything including three dogs and a cat. Lance now lives with his mother and his grandparents live in a camper, a stone's throw from the charred frame of their former home. Now they look at the twisted metal of their old bed frame and a blackened washer and dryer.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

LAMPE: At a downtown restaurant, it was easy to find people with opinions on the matter.

Ms. JEANNIE BYRD(ph): I would not let anybody's house burn down, I dont care what.

LAMPE: That's Jeannie Byrd. Another diner, Michael Prince, agrees.

Mr. MICHAEL PRINCE: I think morally, the right thing would have been to put the fire out.

LAMPE: But another diner says the Cranicks brought it on themselves by not paying the fee.

It's unclear if firefighters have ever done this before, although Todd Cranick, Paulette and Gene's son, claims it happened to his brother in 2005. City Manager Danny Vowell(ph) wouldnt confirm that.

Mr. DANNY VOWELL (City Manager, South Fulton City): No comment.

LAMPE: Fire subscription fees are not new to rural homeowners, especially in unincorporated areas that dont have the tax revenue to fund full-time firefighters.

Al Rosamond heads the Tennessee branch of the National Volunteer Fire Council. He says, over time, he's learned how to make people pay fee - even when it's less than the Cranick's.

Mr. AL ROSAMOND (Fire Chief, National Volunteer Fire Council, Tennessee Branch): We found out that people on an annual basis would not or could not make that $50 commitment. So we broke that $50 down into four twelve and a half dollar payments, and increased the income to the fire department by almost 400 percent.

LAMPE: Rosamond says though, his department would still fight any fire. He adds, the South Fulton fire was unfortunate but the homeowner knew the risk in not paying or forgetting to pay his subscription fee.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

LAMPE: The Cranick's son, Todd, says insurance will cover about 80 percent of rebuilding his parents' home. But the most valuable things can't be replaced.

Mr. TODD CRANICK: My mom lost her mother's Bible and her daddy's Bible. Dad lost his mother's Bible and his favorite aunt's Bible.

LAMPE: Despite this incident there are no plans to make the fire subscription fee mandatory, like a tax. So for now, it's still up to residents to decide whether they want to pay the fee or fend for themselves.

For NPR News, Im Chad Lampe in Murray, Kentucky.

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