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Flaming Conservatives

What child in South Fulton, Tennessee, will want to become a fireman now?

By 10.8.10

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It was always my dream to become a fireman when I grew up but sadly I had to abandon the ambition upon realizing I would never grow up. Fire is a hissing fiend imbedded in the warp of nature, ever threatening the cities men dare to build. This angry agent of carnage must be faced down by agents of courage. Extraordinary men and women step forward to hold the line against the encroaching enemy, fighting fire with fire in their hearts and what tools they can summon to hand.

Sometimes the day is not won without warriors falling in battle. Too often they are victims of "friendly fire," paying for the folly of their peers who ignite in ignorance or keep combustible items in dangerous locales. Our firefighters are heroes who show mettle worth a thousand medals.

All this makes the current situation kind of sad, because the hook and ladder boys are on the hook in rural Tennessee. Folks are upset at the South Fulton Fire Department for standing by and watching a house burn down. The story in brief is this: there are several farmhouses outside the South Fulton city limits which are not within the purview of any city or county fire department. As a service, South Fulton will take responsibility for those properties if the owners pay an annual fee of $75.

A few days ago, the Cranick family called to say their house was beginning to burn. The neighbor called in as well. There was a difference, though: the neighbor was up to date with the fee but the Cranicks were behind, although they had paid in the past. The trucks went out to the area, standing by to protect the paying customer, but with nary a droplet of water to spare for the laggard. The house pretty much burned to the ground while the firemen held their water.

As a postscript to news reports on the story, they mention that the elder Cranick's son was arrested for aggravated assault on the fire chief. Frankly, this strikes me as a rare case where the aggravation mitigates the assault. The fire department turned the arrear into an affront, and got everything all backwards.

A debate has begun raging among political theorists, all anxious to see this as a shibboleth for contemporary mores. Liberals are angry at the idea of letting people suffer as a consequence of their negligence. Conservatives are divided. Some folks enjoy scoffing at scofflaws and beating up on deadbeats. They won't pray for the fate of people who don't pay their freight. Others say that when life and property are being destroyed, morality compels intervention: the math can be sorted out in the aftermath.

In Jewish terms, any time a man is willing to work alongside you now to help himself, you have an obligation to help him deal with his current crisis. If it costs you time from work, or if the service you provide is one you sell for a living, or if you use materials on his behalf, you can bill him to recover that expense. The only exception to this rule is when the man lit the fire himself intentionally and then changes his mind.

It seems fairly clear to me that the American experience has led to the correct approach in the form of our system of emergency-room care. We accept people who have not bought insurance and offer them full treatment, then we send an invoice with the force of law. This should have been applied to the fire as well. The fire should have been extinguished and the homeowner charged for the investment of manpower, services and materials. In fact, this should be publicized in advance: you either pay $75 for the year or $500 an hour when the men have to make a house call.

This is where our fearless men with the triangle hats failed to figure all the angles. A neighbor approached them with an open checkbook and offered to pay the full price if only they sprayed the wealth. Instead they stood by. That is when the mind must rule; never mind the rules. This is not a case where there is some virtue in going by the book. There comes a time, my friends, as Ecclesiastes might have said, when you have to burn the book.

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About the Author

Jay D. Homnick, commentator and humorist, is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator.