Subscription Emergency Services – Your Classic Tea Bag Scenario

In one corner, the people who think that what the South Fulton Fire Department did was reprehensible.  In the other, those who think that you need to "pay to spray".  In the classic Firehouse Zen outlook, let's go to the root of the problem.  Here we are in a brand new age of doing more with less. It's our creed in emergency services.

The beauty of this all is that while there are those who want to limit the "reach" of government, we have to remember that the point of having government involvement in the first place is to protect us in our vulnerable moments.  I am neither a tax-and-spender nor a teabagger.  I don't march in lockstep to anyone's platform.  I have an open mind and I evaluate where things are beneficial to my community and things detrimental, and balance the risk vs. a reasonable cost.  It doesn't seem to me that either of the extremes are acceptable answers.

This is a complicated issue and it can't be solved by just glossing over the sound-bite material.  There are departments who have been doing the subscription thing for years.  Personally, I suggested to some funding-challenged departments a number of years ago that perhaps you could do a "soft-landing" subscription: you pay (in advance) for spray, but if you don't pay (in advance), you REALLY pay.  Like 500% of the subscription rate, charged to the insurance company.  Something tells me the insurance companies would be insisting you pay or you don't get insurance.  Something also tells me that if you fail to pay in this scenario, they WON'T be paying anyway.  But subscription service, while it seems like a logical solution, is fraught with peril.  There are just too many "what-ifs" to make it a workable solution to the whole.

We do have a responsibility to the community to protect life, property and the environment.  But we are painted into a corner when we can't raise revenue to sustain our operations, be it a fairly low cost solution or the full-on urban response solution.  Thus we return to the risk vs. benefit assessment each community must undertake before deciding, "Okay, we don't want paid providers" or "We are going to shut down companies", or "Our risk is low enough that we can make it with an all-volunteer force".  This is something that has to be decided locally, but by responsible individuals who aren't just looking at the bottom line.   There is nothing wrong with any of these scenarios if they can be applied effectively.  The problem is that when they are not, and the decision is made to do this anyway, it is often done with catastrophic results.  You know, of course, who gets left holding the bag in that case, don't you? (That would be us, in case you didn't get that hint.)

The elected officials of your community are charged with more than just appearing ad nauseum on your TV screen for several months leading up to November, although for some, it's the only time I ever see them.  They are charged with making decisions that benefit the community and uphold societal standards.  I know of no society who thinks it's okay to screw the vulnerable at the benefit of the privileged.  Well, I take that back- I know of no RESPONSIBLE society who thinks that's okay.  For any "leader" of a community to say, we're going to go with a subscription fee for service and it's okay to opt out of it at the risk of losing everything you have, it seems to me like you are taking a chance that this could go terribly wrong.  Sending someone a letter to confirm they are "not in" doesn't sound too cool either (I have had too many personal experiences with undelivered registered mail to have confidence in that solution).  I think if everyone was paying the fee and suddenly, someone wasn't, I'd have someone give them a call and make a face-to-face confirmation to find out what the problem was.  Can you not afford it now?  Are you saying you are okay if we don't respond?  I really think some follow-up is required here before saying, you are now on your own.

What may have seemed like a good solution has become national news, but it didn't have to be.  Kirschenbaum in Chaos Organization and Disaster Management suggests that the whole social aspect of disaster response was overtaken by a bureaucracy concerned with job protection and cost reimbursement years ago anyway and this whole event pretty much emphasizes his point.  But when the community insists on having service but is unwilling to pay for it, other solutions must be found for funding.  In this context, "helping neighbors" for purely altruistic reasons has been trumped with who is paying for service and who is not.  This takes the whole emergency services as a business concept to a very predictable level.  But there really is balance to be achieved in every situation.  The challenges facing us in communities like Oak Park, IL and Xenia, OH illustrate there is such a thing as when the "fiscally conservative" become unreasonable, but compelling.  When we insist on the gold standard and our community can only afford the aluminum version, we expose ourselves to this kind of rhetoric.  I'm not saying that's the case in these communities, but the situations making national headlines there only encourage community activists elsewhere who already think a scorched-earth approach to cutting the municipal budget is appropriate.  Our job as leaders is to foster innovative and efficient organizations while maintaining a responsible budget.  Again, balance is in order.

While we use the words "customer service" as a way to describe our efforts, it again goes back to doing what's right for our neighbors and people who visit and work in our community.  While there are those of us who are paid to do this, we have to remember that it is a service we are paid to do often because the volume and type of emergencies we are called to solve exceed the community's readily available resources.  Or maybe it's because we don't care enough about our neighbors anymore because we're so wrapped up in "me".  Regardless, until people begin to give away fire apparatus, permit us to operate without insurance, and clothe us in turnouts out of the kindness of their hearts, we have to pay for this stuff.  Therefore, every community, like it or not, has to endure funding these endeavors, through taxes, donations or subscriptions.  It's up to you how you do it.  But it's a requirement that it be done.


  • Respect_the_Service says:

    Being opposed to big government doesn’t mean that you see no role for government. In fact, fire, pd, and ems are exactly the type of service that government is intended for.

    Saying that you don’t “march in lock-step” sure sounds disingenuous in light of your chosen terminology. Name-calling never elevates a discourse, and your post is no exception. Too bad you couldn’t address an important issue like a civilized professional instead of using populist slang. You do know what ‘tea bagger’ meant before it was co-opted to refer to the Tea Party movement, right?

  • your use of the pejorative term “tea bagger” to represent the “tea party” is grossly unprofessional at best and utterly reprehensible at worst. it is completely out of place in any polite or professional discussion.

  • Larry Peters says:

    Tea Bag scenario? Are serious? The modern day Tea Party is about holding the line on blatant spending such as Obama and the dem’s health care plan. I have never heard the tea party say a damn thing about fire protection and basic public service services. This and the many attempts to drag the tea party into the mud show how desperate you guys are.
    The Tea Party does not stand for cutting fire protection so please do not use the name in your lame article.

  • Murron says:

    You sat back and let a mans home burn to the ground, and his pets burned alive, not for a measely $75, but as a WARNING to anyone else who would dare neglect to pay your extortion, your protection fee….

    The paultry sum this man owed would not have made a hill of beans in the cost or your shiny toy truck, just as sure as there is a God in heaven, you used this man as an example, a threat to other’s….Pay Up, or you lose everything.

    Some don’t know about RICO’s LAW, but they are about to learn, and use it on RACKETEERS such as yourselves in FULTON!

    People are wising up to all this political lingo, mumbo jumbo, and they will be given the tools to fight back. The behavior of this fire department, standing by watching a persons home burn to the ground, and pets die, is about to make your area famous.!

  • truck6alpha says:

    Well, it certainly looks as if at least you all found the site.

  • Jimmy G says:

    Unbelievable that instead of seeing the point of the article and thinking of what service level will work in each community, given the various resources it has….that some got stuck and missed on some provoking reflection, given our own beliefs and what is objectively prudent.

  • Mick Mayers says:

    Thanks for the back-up, Jimmy. I’m happy to know that at least one person actually read the article.

  • chiefreason says:

    “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand” sure comes to mind here.
    We are certainly emotional about the MANY complex issues and arguments as they apply to South Fulton’s situation.
    Instead of looking at it in the broad spectrum and perhaps finding viable solutions from a THOROUGH examination of the FACTS, we choose to play na-na, boo-boo.
    Our willingness to protect only goes so far and unfortunately, we are not allowed to protect people from themselves in only the extreme cases and THAT takes a court order.
    The mistakes made are NOT that obvious and the solutions are elusive.
    We can debate it but the bottom line is that the citizens in Obion County have to decide if they want fire protection or not. And if so, THEY have to pay for it. That isn’t extortion; that is providing funding for a service.
    And they aren’t TOYS. It is life saving equipment. Know the difference.

  • truck6alpha says:

    Sounds like two or three have read it now. Thanks CR!

  • Jon D. Marsh says:

    The content of this article merits excellent points of view ( as Firehouse Zen always does !) I appreciate your subtle reminders throughout the well written paragraphs such as “do the right thing” and “when we insist on the gold standard but can only afford the aluminum version”. I’m incited to consider how spoiled we have become as a nation. We sometimes express opinions with limited knowledge or complete misunderstanding of informtion provided. We fly off the handle at the mere mention of any specific political party without a clue to the real intention of the authors pen, and we just don’t read or listen long enough to hear or understand the content of any issue.

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