The controversy rages on. Below is the truth about the notorious Obion County, Tennessee fires. Not only are the firefighters 100% not guilty in both fires, the media – including “independent, progressive” media – have done the South Fulton Fire Department very, very dirty.
The problem with media coverage of police and fire stories is that reporters (civilians) only give the middle of the story; they can’t give the beginning or end, because they don’t know it. At best, it’s the blind leading the blind. This limited and skewed analysis gets fossilized in public opinion, as it has in Obion County.
Reporter$ often decline to re$earch an inflammatory $tory, reporting from their gut in$tead. It’$ more $en$ational that way, but it make$ life much harder for first responders. The Young Turk$ are by far the wor$t offender$ I know of. I’m not $ure why they keep doing thi$.
If you can bear with me for a bit of academics, I promise you’ll learn something worthwhile. The firefighters of South Fulton deserve their day in court, and you, the citizen, have a right to know.
To understand this situation, we need to back up to the very beginning, and forgive me if some of this seems obvious. Trust me, to follow this plot you have to begin reading on Page 1, which begins with a map.
Every fire station has huge maps on the walls. Counties and cities draw a line around their area on the map, marking its boundaries within the larger jurisdiction (state, federal, etc.).
They take account of their emergency management needs (i.e., rivers that may flood, chemical plants that may explode, population density, etc.) They assess their overall budget, compare that to their needs, and allot a budget for each public safety department.
That jurisdictional map is subsected into zones, with fire, police and EMS stations dedicated to each zone. There is usually a map of the county/city with each zone either outlined or shaded, so you can see all of the boundaries at once, with problem areas noted as above. People and equipment are dedicated to each zone. Each station is like a watchdog in its own yard, patrolling its own fence.
You can think of a fire department as a net covering an area on the map. With a thick budget you can make a tight weave with small zones; having a station every mile or two ensures that little or nothing falls through the net. Plenty of people and equipment can handle many crises simultaneously.
On a skimpier budget you have less fabric to cover the same area; the looser weave means more things can fall through. When there are less people and fewer trucks, they have to travel farther. It takes them longer to get there. Fewer people means more work for each, and a longer time to regain control of the situation.
A veteran paramedic once told me, “You know when the emergency’s over? When I get there.”
Think about it; people dial 911 when they lose control of a situation. Public safety – police, fire and EMS – is an army that fights chaos.
A chaos fighter must (a) have a plan, and (b) keep their wits about them. They adapt and overcome, but must never completely abandon the overall plan. You can’t fight chaos with chaos. When you call 911, do you want the people who respond to be as panicked as you are?
The holy grail for first responders is what Baldassare Castiglione (pictured above) called “sprezzatura,” the art of never letting them see you sweat. Police, firefighters and paramedics have the most respect for the one who remains composed in any situation, no matter how horrible or chaotic.
Sprezzatura … is defined… as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” It is the ability … to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.” Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance.”
First responders do their best to hold the line against destruction and death, knowing full well that they will ultimately lose the war. The best they can hope for is winning the occasional battle. But there is no stopping death. They won’t eradicate lightning, crib death, or drunken idiots. They have to either suck that reality up, or find another line of work.
The idea that “this emergency is special” stems from the denial of death; that’s a luxury that gets beaten out of people on the road from civilian to first responder. Death isn’t special at all, it’s universal.
Again, the enemy is chaos. There’s no way to control when someone will dial 911. The fact that someone is having a heart attack on the south side won’t prevent a wreck on the north side. Chaos, like rust, never sleeps. The baton of “duty” is always being handed off – from firefighters to paramedics, from A shift to B shift, etc. Someone must be responsible at all times, 24 x 7 x 365. There has to be a Plan B. It’s all about planning and readiness.
If an agency becomes overwhelmed, i.e., has a huge incident, or many incidents at once, they employ “mutual aid.” Mutual aid is an arrangement between neighboring jurisdictions, that they will dispatch trucks outside their own area if need be. Mutual aid is mutual; I scratch your back, you scratch mine. The baton of duty is handed from one neighbor to another.
Fulton City has a fire department, Obion County does not. Coming back to the map, what that means is that there’s a net over South Fulton City, and where that patch of net ends, there’s a giant hole. There can be no mutual aid between one department and itself. There is no one to hand the baton to. Expecting South Fulton to run calls in Obion County for free is “You scratch my back, then go scratch your own.”
This is the critical point: While South Fulton is running calls in Obion County, nobody is protecting South Fulton.
The subscription fee service is problematic. Instead of each dog patrolling his own yard, it’s like having one dog that runs all over the neighborhood. The City of South Fulton used to have a tiny, fraying patch of net that covered its own area. Under the subscription service, they’re just sliding that little patch of netting around the huge hole — which they weren’t originally part of. It’s a raw deal for everyone, especially the firefighters, and the citizens of South Fulton City.
I’ve wondered why they decided to do it, and can only speculate: 1) their budget is barely adequate to cover South Fulton; they need the extra revenue from the subscriptions to keep covering anything at all; and/or 2) they’re trying to throw the people in the county a lifeline. I suspect it’s a little of both. I saw a comment online that South Fulton has two ancient trucks and can barely stay in operation.
The $75 annual fee is probably intended as an insurance policy; if enough people pay the fee and don’t use it, they can bring in enough additional income to keep the department operating. It means they have to work much harder, take greater risks, and take the blame when they inevitably fail. That’s why fire departments almost never operate on a subscription basis.
It’s like car insurance. Insurance only covers people who pay the premiums in advance. You can’t start paying the premium after you get in a wreck. The system doesn’t work unless people pay in and don’t use the service, because when the service is used, it’s a lot more expensive than the premium.
Living and working in a rural area myself, I suppose the firefighters have friends and relatives who live out in the county. There may be some element of the firefighters wanting to throw them a lifeline; however, if they don’t reach for it (pay the fee), that’s their choice.
Either way, this system is a band-aid on a bullet hole. The subscription service concept is virtually unheard of in developed countries. It’s a recipe for disaster.
With that said, I’d like to address the coverage of this second fire from The Young Turks’ Michael Shure and Ana Kasparian.
I’m excerpting out of sequence with emphasis added. At the bottom is a verbatim transcript of the clip in its entirety, for full context.
Shure: Right. But the sanitation department is gonna take, I don’t know, 20 hours of overtime to haul away all the damage from that, from that fire. And it’s gonna cost the city more money than putting out that fire would have
1. Would a county that doesn’t have enough tax revenue to provide fire service provide trash pickup? I live in a rural county that can afford a volunteer fire department, and we carry our own trash to the dump.
There’s a pervasive “first world” sensibility to the reporting (from Los Angeles) that I don’t believe translates to Obion County, Tennessee.
2. Even if they there were trash pickup, it wouldn’t cost the city a plug nickel, because this fire didn’t happen in the city. It happened in the county. See the map discussion above.
Shure: You’re a fireman. Put the fire out and deal with it afterwards.
There are several major problems with this.
1. Fire departments don’t wait until after something happens to decide what to do. They do extensive planning for directing resources to emergencies. If Obion County had a fire department – which they don’t – they would have a plan for how to handle a fire in this trailer park. Which they don’t.
2. What if someone calls 911 in the city while they’re working this fire out in the county? Who goes to assist the people who have paid for fire service through taxes and now aren’t getting it? If someone has a heart attack and no one responds because they’re outside their service area, can the family sue the South Fulton Fire Department? Bet the farm.
My research revealed that people move to South Fulton, TN instead of neighboring Fulton, KY, because the taxes are lower. The citizens of Obion County were offered a tax increase to cover fire service and they voted against it. They want fire service, they just don’t want to pay for it. They made that explicitly clear at the voting booth.
3. When a crew accepts an assignment they are unavailable for anything else, until it is completed. Once the fire is controlled, they aren’t immediately back in service. They break down all the hoses, re-roll them and replace them on the truck. They go to a water supply point and refill the enormous water tank on their truck. The hoses will then need to be washed and set out to dry, with other hoses being placed on the truck. Everything with mud or debris on it gets cleaned. Anything else that got used (i.e., oxygen in tanks, fuel in trucks) or damaged (hoses, wrenches, ladders, etc.) will need to be replaced. There’s a turnaround time on all of this.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, nobody is covering their service area. There’s no goalie at the net. In this scenario, South Fulton is expected to drop their own baton of duty on the ground, instead picking up someone else’s abandoned baton. That’s like leaving your own children unsupervised while you go next door and take care of abandoned neighbor children.
Shure: It doesn’t matter whether there’s a person or a dog or a cat or nothing alive in there. Someone’s home is burning down.
So many misconceptions in so few words.
1. The home in question is a trailer. I’m guessing neither Mr. Shure nor Ms. Kasparian have ever personally stepped foot into a trailer. Firefighters call a trailer a “horizontal chimney.” A “stick built” home, i.e., constructed on-site out of lumber, drywall, etc., burns quickly enough. A trailer is made of a couple of steel I-beams, a few sheets of plywood, and a lot of plastic bits that snap together. Trailers burn much faster than stick-built homes. Once a trailer catches fire, you have literally seconds to get out alive.
Below is a re-enactment of the famous Station nightclub disaster. (I’m not linking the actual footage, which we watched in fire academy — it’s gruesome.) The computerized version corresponds very well to the actual footage. You’ll see that the window of opportunity to escape is approximately 60 seconds at the most. A trailer would burn even faster.
2. Again, this fire happened in the County. South Fulton traveled over 10 miles. They have to get into the truck and drive there. By the time the City crew got there, it was a total loss.
3. The idea that firefighters go into every burning structure every time is a myth.
Quick anecdote. Before I ever worked a structure fire my chief gave me this advice: If you get on the scene of a fire and someone says, “You have to go in and get my baby!” you need to stop and verbally confirm that it’s a human infant. Why? Because someone once tried to send my chief into a non-survivable ball of fire to retrieve a “baby” that was later determined to be an antique porcelain doll.
Another firefighter told me he was once sent after a “baby” that was actually a collectible guitar. Please forgive firefighters if they don’t always do what civilians think they should do.
Firefighters safeguard human life (including their own), then property, in that order. Entering a burning structure to search for victims is a calculated risk. What are the chances of someone inside still being alive? Will the firefighters be able to survive the rescue attempt? Sending firefighters to their deaths to retrieve corpses is insanity. Should they risk their lives for dogs and cats? Sometimes civilians seem to think of first responders as utterly disposable, subhumans.
4. If there had been people inside, South Fulton may have gone in after them, risking their own lives. However, had they been injured or killed in the process, there would be no insurance coverage for them. No life insurance, no workers’ comp, no hospitalization, no death/dismemberment, no short or long-term disability.
An airlift to the burn unit from my service area costs either $7,000.00 or $12,000.00 (depending which chopper is available, if any). That’s just for the chopper, not the ground ambulance or any hospital bills. Who pays for that, the lady whose trailer burned down? The one who didn’t pay the $75.00?
Assuming that the firefighters’ lives are expendable, and any cat or dog in a trailer merits their bankruptcy, dismemberment or death, what about their families? What makes civilian families more worthy than firefighter families?
5. Lastly, a fire department and the municipality that sponsors it are legally liable for the services they provide. A department that works outside its agreed-upon jurisdiction is legally liable for damages – as are the firefighters who knowingly work outside their jurisdiction. What if South Fulton’s firefighters made a rescue attempt and some citizen got injured? Rest assured, many people would jump at the chance to sue firefighters who bent the rules to try and help them.
Shure: People are so focused on rules right now… you see it in unions where one guy can’t pick something up even though it’s in somebody else’s way because it’s the other union’s job to pick it up.
In a civilian workplace, rules are often arbitrary, like when smoking breaks can be had or whether you can eat at your desk. The union rules Mr. Shure references are based on political territorialism. Such rules are often petty and frivolous.
Public safety rules, on the other hand, are “evidence based,” meaning they stem from “after-incident reviews.” Rules are put into place after someone gets injured or killed. That’s why they get followed.
Experts review literally millions of 911 call reports each year to determine how planning could have provided a better outcome, if at all. This is why CPR guidelines change every year or two. We’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. Public safety is a giant army of constant planners.
Kasparian: And what do you do – it makes me angry as well. You’ve got to use human judgment. You have to have compassion for others when it comes to certain situations, and here’s a perfect example of one of those certain situations, right?
The fact that these reporters are angry does not change the reality-based, scientific nature of fire service industry standards. Angry civilians almost never show up at NFPA looking to get educated. It is unfortunate that neither reporter made an effort to research the matter. This was an important teachable moment, and another dismal failure of the fourth estate vis-à-vis The Young Turks.
Kasparian: [T]his is Vickie Bell’s home, and she claims that her house was on fire, she called the fire department, they showed up but they did absolutely nothing about it because she did not pay the $75 fee.
I object to the characterization that they “did absolutely nothing.” Why would the fire department drive 11 miles out of their service area to show up at this woman’s trailer and rub her nose in it, leaving their obligations unattended? It’s a safe bet they cut the power to the trailer in question, checked for downed power lines, and surveyed for other hazards.
Kasparian: And what happens if one home is on fire and it puts the other homes in the neighborhood in danger?
Again, what happens if something catches fire in the City while they’re out in the County?
Kasparian: Do you blow out the fire or put out the fire from the other homes that paid the fee, but you allow that one house to burn down? It’s just so stupid.
They almost certainly went out there to provide “suppression” (which is exactly what happened at the Cranick fire). Suppression is the act of wetting adjacent things down to prevent them catching fire, i.e., adjacent fields and forests. If nearby subscribers paid the fee (and were thus in the extended service area) yes, they kept those homes from catching fire. There’s nothing stupid about it.
Kasparian: The mayor of the town … says, “There’s no way to go out to every fire and keep up the manpower, the equipment, and just the funding for the fire department.”
Shure: Uh, he’s, he’s an idiot.
Actually what he said above was entirely logical and provable. Mr. Shure is speaking outside his knowledge base.
Shure: And yes, he may be right. They don’t have the funding, they don’t have the manpower.
The above speaks for itself. This editorial posture is a Young Turks trademark for public safety coverage. This report, while truly offensive, is less vitriolic than the multiple similar reports by Cenk Uygur.
Shure: If – I’m not a fireman. If I see a home burning down I’m gonna grab a hose.
OK, let’s put Mr. Shure on incident command. Look at the debris at 0:57. Is that your final answer, pick up a hose? Hint: that round white thing is a cap from a propane tank.
Shure: I’m gonna like,you know, throw my, you know, my Aquafina on it. I’m gonna do something.
Throwing his water bottle on a BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion, i.e., what happens when you put water on an overheated propane tank as above) would probably be the best thing for Mr. Shure. That would provide valuable, real-world perspective on fighting fire. He may finally begin to understand what firefighters know. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do.
Shure: But what I’m saying is there’s just, there’s a level of common sense that people just don’t use.
“I think it takes a particular coward to criticize procedures that you don’t understand; particularly when they apply to places that you don’t have the bravery to go”
– Battalion Chief John Sullivan, FDNY
AK: There’s a small town in Tennessee known as Obion County, and they basically have a special fee for people who wish to, uh, be protected in case of a fire. So if there’s a fire the fire department will go and help them if they pay a $75 annual fee. If they do not pay that annual fee the fire department will not come to their rescue, they will allow the houses to burn down. So I guess this kind of, uh, policy was put to the test over a year ago when uh, one family home, uh, was on fire. The police department showed up, but they realized that the family did not pay this fee –
AK: — and they allowed the home to burn to the ground. Well the situation has occurred again, uh, and this is Vickie Bell’s home, and she claims that her house was on fire, she called the fire department, they showed up but they did absolutely nothing about it because she did not pay the $75 fee.
MS: You know, it’s unbelievable. I mean if, if you have a fee like this in place, right? And look, look at the damage –
AK: I know.
MS: — I mean, it’s horrendous.
[0:57: Still shot of top from propane tank in debris.]
MS: As, as you would imagine it would be. And it was covered by the news. If – there’s human nature. People are so focused on rules right now, and you see it in Good Samaritan laws, you see it at Wal-Mart when people are trampled and they say, “Well, it’s not our jurisdiction,” you see it in unions where one guy can’t pick something up even though it’s in somebody else’s way because it’s the other union’s job to pick it up. People just need to use their fucking heads. I’m sorry, I, I, the, it’s ridiculous. If a home is burning down, and you are a fireman, and these people didn’t pay $75, you can be sure they’ll pay like double after the fire if you put it out. Uh, it’s – I don’t – this makes me so angry.
AK: And what do you do – it makes me angry as well. You’ve got to use human judgment. You have to have compassion for others when it comes to certain situations, and here’s a perfect example of one of those certain situations, right?
AK: And what happens if one home is on fire and it puts the other homes in the neighborhood in danger? Do you blow out the fire or put out the fire from the other homes that paid the fee, but you allow that one house to burn down? It’s just so stupid. And you know, the mayor of the town is basically saying, look, you guys might not like it, but we don’t have the funds to fight these fires unless people pay us the fee, so it is what it is. In fact, I’ll read you his exact quote. He says, “There’s no way to go out to every fire and keep up the manpower, the equipment, and just the funding for the fire department.”
MS: That’s Mayor David Crocker.
MS: Davy Crocker. Uh, from Tennessee also. Uh, he’s, he’s an idiot. And yes, he may be right. They don’t have the funding, they don’t have the manpower. If – I’m not a fireman. If I see a home burning down I’m gonna grab a hose. I’m gonna like,you know, throw my, you know, my Aquafina on it. I’m gonna do something.
AK: Right. I’m sure that’ll be successful.
MS: But what I’m saying is there’s just, there’s a level of common sense that people just don’t use.
MS: Because they’re so bogged down in bureaucracy. It’s, it’s so frustrating.
AK: You know, we did this story about, uh, a young girl. I forget how old she is at this point, I believe she was about 4 years old, in China, who got run over by, uh, two vans. And people in this factory did nothing to help her. They literally walked around her, walked over her, they did nothing to help her. And I think a lot of people in the United States and around the world were very quick to criticize what was going on in China. But when you look at this fire issue it’s something very similar, because what if there were people in that house?
MS: Mm hmm.
AK: What if there were people that needed to be saved? If the family didn’t pay the stupid $75 fee you’re not gonna do what’s necessary to save their lives?
MS: Right. But the sanitation Department is gonna take, I don’t know, 20 hours of overtime to haul away all the damage from that –
MS: — from that fire. And it’s gonna cost the city more money than putting out that fire would have. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a person or a dog or a cat or nothing alive in there. Someone’s home is burning down.
MS: You’re a fireman. Put the fire out and deal with it afterwards. Mayor Crocker, lose your election.
- Tennessee “Firefighters” let homeowner’s house burn. Why? (warmsouthernbreeze.wordpress.com)
- The Obion County (Cranick) Fire – Still Burning Firefighters (medic343.wordpress.com)
- Obion County Firefighters: STILL NOT GUILTY (medic343.wordpress.com)
- Callers Threaten Firefighters After Home Burns (abcnews.go.com)
- Tennessee home burns as firefighters watch (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Rockin’ the Bayern…: Obion County home burns as firefighters watch | The Jackson Sun | jacksonsun.com (jacksonsun.com)
- No Fire Fee? Let Your House Burn! (blogs.wsj.com)