Tenn. family's loss after not paying fire fee resonates in Montgomery

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 11:03 PM

SOUTH FULTON, TENN. - Lance Cranick lost almost everything: His high school letterman jacket. His football awards. Six guns. Three bows. His iPod. A flat-screen TV.

His grandfather Gene lost dozens of Zane Grey westerns. The scorched bones of the family's dead dogs are curled in the rubble.

"It's all because of me," Cranick, 21 and unemployed, kept repeating. He had left the trash burning unattended in barrels in front of the house while he took a shower. Now his family's house in this patch of rural Tennessee was ash. "I take full responsibility."

But the debate over who's responsible for the destruction at the Cranick place is no simple one. When Cranick called 911, the dispatcher told him that she'd send help right away. Ten minutes later, she said firefighters were not coming after all - because the family had not paid the city its annual $75 fire protection fee.

Fire engines did arrive at the Cranick property, but only because the flames from the barrels were spreading to their neighbor's cornfield. And that family was paid up.

The firefighters protected the neighbor's field and let the Cranicks' home burn.

That act has resonated across the country as either an extreme example of how personal responsibility should be the basis of American democracy or a nightmarish incident that proves how far the country has strayed from its purpose as a place where people care for one another.

Next month, Montgomery County voters will decide whether ambulance service should be included in taxes or paid for by health insurance. The proposal, approved by the County Council this year, would not deny service to the uninsured, but opponents say the plan nonetheless violates the compact that has defined the American system at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal: the idea of a safety net that supports all.

The Sept. 29 incident in Tennessee is "what happens when you lose sight of what you're really there for and money becomes the omnipotent god, rather than going in and saving people," said Marcine D. Goodloe, president of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association. Although the fee would be borne by insurance companies rather than county residents directly, Goodloe said it could discourage some from calling for help.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said any link between the ambulance fee and the Tennessee case is "reaching for straws and a desperate argument to try to confuse the public." Leggett said that there's a limit to how much taxes can be raised and that charging insurers for ambulance runs will help expand fire service.

Fire protection for all is an idea that stretches to Benjamin Franklin, an early advocate for volunteer fire corps. "The concept of not doing anything for a house that's burning down, that's something I don't think Franklin would have agreed to," said Edmund Morgan, a Yale historian who wrote a book on Franklin. "If you can help put it out, I think it's your duty."

Just south of the Tennessee-Kentucky line, on country roads that wind past a golf course, grain elevators and a campaign sign that reads "Plow Congress," the Cranick fire remains a topic of fierce debate.

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