Oct. 5, 2010— -- Firefighters aren't afraid to break down windows and doors to douse flames, but a Tennessee family's failure to pay a $75 fee stopped firefighters dead in their tracks last week as a home burned to the ground.
South Fulton, Tenn., firefighters stood on the sidelines, watching as flames engulfed Gene Cranick's Obion County home. They refused to help because Cranick had not paid an annual "pay to spray" subscription fee.
"I just forgot to pay my $75," homeowner Gene Cranick said. "I did it last year, the year before. ... It slipped my mind."
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The city of South Fulton charges that $75 fire protection fee to rural residents who live outside the city limits. When a household has not paid the fee, firefighters are required by law to not respond.
"We have to follow the rules and the ordinances set forth to us, and that's exactly what we do," said Jeff Vowell, South Fulton city manager.
In fact, in Cranick's case, officials said that fire trucks didn't even show up until a neighbor who did pay the subscription fee called 911 to protect his home from the growing fire.
It's infuriating to Cranick, who is now left to clean up the charred remains of decades' worth of family heirlooms and other belongings.
"My neighbor called [the fire department], saying whatever it takes, we want them to put it out, we'll pay $500," said Cranick. "They told us, 'It's too late.'"
South Fulton has had the "pay to spray" policy in place for more than 20 years, and the fees -- which often cover police services, too -- are fairly common in rural areas. Without implementing complex tax arrangements to cover cash-strapped city budgets, there are simply few other options.
"If the city starts fighting fires in the homes of people outside the city who don't pay, why would anyone pay?" said Jacqueline Byers with the National Association of Counties.
As Firefighters Standby, Home Burns to the Ground
Still, it was small comfort to the Cranick family. Gene Cranick's son, Tim Cranick, was reportedly so upset by the fire department's actions that he went to the station and assaulted the fire chief. The younger Cranick was arrested and released on $5,000 bond, charged with aggravated assault.
"I don't know that there is a good situation when things like this happen," said Vowell. "It's regrettable. Tough for everyone involved."