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Fire Critic blows it again: No Rhett, the problem in Tennessee is not the news media. This was a clearly a case of man biting dog.


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Previous coverage of this story on STATter911.com

Before going into last night’s Firefighter Netcast I had only one problem with my good friend The Fire Critic’s views on the fire department in South Fulton, Tennessee letting a family’s home burn to the ground because a $75 fee wasn’t paid. Now I have two problems.     

In his opening monologue describing the events, Rhett Fleitz did what I have seen and heard many a fire chief do when the bad news showed up on radio, TV and the newspapers. Rhett almost reflexively blamed the news media for sensationalizing this story. Rhett you are definitely chief material with natural reactions like that. There is a future for you buddy.     

But let me give you a reality check with this ancient lesson from the news business. Dog biting man is not news. Man biting dog is. I know Rhett that you are probably still trying to figure out why I brought this old saying into the conversation last night, so let me put it another way. Firefighters putting out a house fire often isn’t news. Firefighters sitting and watching a house burn is (if you still don’t get it, ask Willie to explain it to you).     


There are a lot of citizen commentaries like this on YouTube. It gives you an indication of the depth of the emotion with this story and the reputation problem the fire service faces. Click here for more.    

I can be as a big a critic of my former profession as anyone, but this is in no way, shape or form a problem of the news media hyping a story. This story doesn’t need hyping. Rhett’s objection was the headline “Firefighters watch as home burns”. That isn’t hype. That’s a fact and a very accurate headline.     

In fact, Rhett bringing this up really does my job and makes my argument about this case. It’s simple. This wouldn’t have been a story making news around the world if the fire department did what fire departments are supposed to do and put out the fire. Yes, there is a lot more to this issue and it is much more complicated than that. But that’s the bottom line.     

During our debate Rhett said he still stands by his other comment that caused me to wonder if he really has a clue about what he is saying as he tries to juggle the content of multiple blogs (the other day the man I used to call “the hardest working man in the fire service blog business” was so desperate for content he put naked boobs on FireCritic.com). Rhett says he still believes, “The only thing that failed here was the homeowner not paying the fee. Everything else operated as it should.”     

I will explain it again to all of my friends who agree with Rhett. And looking at the comments, there are quite a few of you. This is a case where you can’t just say the rules are the rules, and make sure each one is followed to the letter. It draws you to the wrong conclusion.     

Yes, you can point to the requirements and say that the homeowner blew it and give the example that GEICO won’t let you make a claim on car insurance that you buy after you total your car. You and Rhett are technically correct on each one of these points. But you are morally wrong (not that I am normally an arbiter of morals) and it is the wrong answer for the fire service.  

Your correct assessment of the individual facts doesn’t mean your answer to this problem is correct. In this case it’s just the opposite. You’re failing to see the big picture (now who is sounding like a fire chief?).  

It is the job of the fire service to be there when someone else is having the worst day of their lives, no matter how wrong they are for getting themselves in that situation. In this case the fire service blew it big time and it is once again costing a great amount of reputation equity.     

Let me give you an insurance analogy that better relates to this case. You have no health insurance. You take your child to the emergency room with a badly fractured leg. Because of the lack of insurance does the doctor refuse to treat your kid or tell you to come back when the leg is infected and his life is in danger? You know the answer to that and that should have been the answer in South Fulton.     

But to me this is not really a problem with the firefighters on the scene. I know there are many of you think they should have disobeyed orders and attacked the fire. I don’t blame the front line firefighters. But I do blame the fire department. A distinction lost on my friend Rhett last night (and he is my friend and I continue to defend his right to be wrong). Even the woman whose son decked the fire chief agrees this wasn’t the fault of the firefighters.     

But the Fire Department should never have put those firefighters in that position. They were set up to fail. Yes, I know there is a great responsibility by Obion County, its citizens and the political leaders of South Fulton in this matter. That is not lost on me. But the fire department shouldn’t allow everyone else to put them in a position that goes against what being a firefighter is all about.     

If this is truly a policy dictated by others and not the fire department, than this is one one of those rare situations where the fire chief, backed by his firefighters, must collectively hold their breath until they turn blue. They need to take a stand.     

And I am hoping the leadership in fire departments all over the country where this scenario can and does happen will look at this black eye to the fire service and realize they don’t want their department to become the next postor child for this issue.     

Rhett tells me not all of the municipal departments providing fire protection service for Obion County operate this way. According to Rhett some don’t charge at all and others have a policy similar to the one I’ve shown from the Karns VFD, a Tennessee department about five hours to the east of South Fulton.      

In case you missed it, Karns is implementing subscription fire protection. But they are smart enough not to put themselves in this untenable position of having to refuse to put out a fire. They will do what firefighters are supposed to do, but after it’s the smoke clears the homeowner will get a hefty bill for the fire department’s services. Not ideal, but it saves firefighters from being the man who bit the dog.

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