Over the past couple of years, firefighters in Obion County, Tennessee, have watched rural resident’s homes burn down.  Those residents had not paid their subscription fee to the fire department.

Liberal economist Paul Krugman asserted this is “essentially the same as denying someone essential medical care because he doesn’t have insurance.”

But because the fire department has already stated that it would have attempted to save anybody trapped in any house, the two situations are nothing alike.

A more ridiculous statement, (if that is even possible) made by Zaid Jilani of the political blog ThinkProgress clearly misunderstood conservatism when he said,

“The conservative vision [of America] was on full display last week in Obion County.”

Conservative values advocate a free market; natural growth in an economy through the relationship between supply and demand, driven by humanity’s creativity and desire to compete.  This was not a private fire department, operating under the free market principles that govern companies.  The Obion County Commission established a county-wide fire department in 1987, but has never provided funding for it.  The county-wide department was not eligible to receive FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grants either.  Instead, the county’s eight municipal fire departments offer unique fire protection coverage plans to its rural residents. Each department is “solely funded by the tax dollars belonging to each individual town or city.”  Since they rely on taxes, which only come from residents of the respective municipalities, not rural residents, they are not obligated to extinguish fires outside of city limits.  The government provided no legal way to recover the $500 fee that was charged for calls to rural residences, so the solution was to charge up front.

Each subscription plan went before a panel of municipal leaders before receiving approval.  They could have included exceptions if they had wanted to.  Mayor David Crocker of South Fulton said that his city would make no exceptions, which is why those rural residents who had not paid the subscription fee watched their house burn.  Blount County charges the same sort of fee, but then charges $1,100 per hour to non-paying residents. Clearly the government is to blame, not conservatives who believe in laissez-faire capitalism.  Even Obion County firefighters blame local officials for the problem, complaining that “it is becoming more difficult to convince municipal leaders that the municipal fire departments responding to calls outside the municipal boundaries and for which no compensation is guaranteed is ‘just the right thing to do.’”

If the government had followed through with creating a county fire department, then the rural homeowners could have been taxed, meaning that the subscription plan would be non-existent. However, I would propose a different solution. I believe privatizing fire departments would be most efficient. In the late 17th century, private fire brigades were formed by insurance companies so that fires could be extinguished as soon as possible, thus keeping the amount of compensation paid by the insurer at a minimum. There is no reason why private fire brigades could not work in today’s society, though they should not be affiliated with insurance companies.

Critics are skeptical of privatizing fire departments, but that is because they see the problems with subscription based firefighting. I agree; rural fire protection services should not be created. Firefighting companies should work as a form of insurance, not as a service. If it is a service, then nobody would subscribe, instead risking the possibility that they may have to pay a late fee if their house caught on fire. Therefore, creating the companies and sustaining their operations would be nearly impossible.

Private firefighting companies’ protection should be sold like insurance. Property owners should have to hold fire insurance, just like car owners must own car insurance. Ideally, homeowners who implement precautions to prevent a fire should receive a waiver from an inspector, or some other incentive to take the necessary steps to avoid a tragedy.  The penurious residents of apartment or duplex units would not have to worry about trying to pay late fees for firefighting services, because the property owner would be required to hold this new form of insurance.

Adam Ondo :: University of Rochester :: Rochester, New York :: @JoplinMaverick