When Firefighters Don’t Fight

October 20, 2010 BY danariely

Recently, a flaming trashcan ignited a house in Tennessee. Local authorities were notified and a crew of firefighters rushed to the scene to put out the fire just in time.

Wait a minute. That’s not at all what happened. In Obion County, firefighters are not on-call to the community at large. Instead, the right to a fireman is only guaranteed to those who pay an annual $75 fire protection fee before their property lights up. When this house (belonging to homeowners who had not paid the fee) caught fire, firefighters refused to come to the rescue. They ignored the family’s begging, only arriving at the scene when the fire jumped to a neighbor’s house (who had, in fact, paid for protection). Still, not a drop of water was wasted on the first house. Firefighters merely stood and watched as the house dissolved into ash.

This problem is related to the question of bailing out people with bad mortgages.  Should we help those who took o mortgages that they could not afford?  Would it encourage them in the future to keep on being reckless?

Or we can ask a more general question — should we actually let people decide whether they’d like to pay the advance protection fee, or is there something ultimately flawed about letting people decide for themselves? Very few of us think that we will be the ones in need of fire protection, and because we don’t foresee the consequences of not paying, we might not be sufficiently prepared for a potential disaster. And maybe we shouldn’t have to make that difficult decision ourselves.