How could firefighters let a home burn?

It must be a bad dream where a fire apparatus with trained personnel and ready equipment sits idle while a man's home burns to the ground

To me, EMS is bigger than just people who need to go to the hospital. EMS represents professionals doing for people in need what others cannot or will not do. To me, "EMS" means being there regardless; regardless of race, religion, lifestyle, or socio-economic status; regardless of whether you ever pay for the service or even say "thank you."

To me, EMS is not limited to medical, but includes everyone who "runs to" when everyone else "runs away." When I think of "EMS," I consider police and fire departments as well as ambulance and rescue squads because all of these endeavors are less about what they do and more about why they do it.

Based on my particular view of "EMS people," I was stunned to see news reports of a fire department in South Fulton, Tennessee whose members watched a man's home burn to the ground because he had not paid all of his $75 annual subscription for fire protection.

Even as I write, it does not seem real. It must be a bad dream where a fire apparatus with trained personnel and ready equipment sits idle while a man's home — his castle — burns to the ground leaving only twisted steel and melted glass along with the charred remains of beloved pets — lost memories drifting into the air with the last wisps of smoke. It does not seem real that human beings who have dedicated themselves to "being there regardless" could let this happen.

"The point in all this is, we had to go to this subscription program. That's just what we were dealt. The people should understand that houses are gonna burn," says Hornbeak VFD Fire Chief, Bob Reavis. As a passionate EMS advocate, the act alone is maddening to me and the insane rationale behind the decision is ludicrous. However, it is a look into the souls of the Chief and the fire department personnel on the scene; the people in whose hands the safety and well-being of the community rests, that sickens me to my core.

What is happening in the world when the fire chief stands in front of news reporters and says that the Cranick family is to blame for their own loss because they missed paying the $6.25 per month subscription? What has happened in the world when sworn professionals committed to the preservation of life and property abandon their own values and shirk their sworn duty for what amounts to twenty-and-a-half cents a day? The bigger, more important question is this: What will happen to EMS, an industry already struggling for professional recognition, when there is not a deafening uproar condemning Chief Reavis and his department's response to this tragedy?

Not new
Subscription services are not new. In fact, there are countless systems throughout the United States that function very successfully based upon subscription payments. The concept is simple: Residents and businesses pay a low annual fee and receive emergency services when they access 911. If they do not participate in the subscription, they still have full access to 911, but at a higher financial cost per use.

Put simply, a subscriber may receive an ambulance trip to the hospital at no additional cost, while a non-subscriber may receive a hefty bill for the same trip. This is not rocket science. However, following the absurdly dim-witted logic in South Fulton, the subscriber receives the trip to the hospital while the non-subscriber is left in the street to die.

By that same logic, what if it had been a tourist passing through with a car fire or a motor-home fire? Since the tourist had not paid into the subscription would his property be left to burn? Would his pets be left to die a painful, agonizing death?

There is no comfort to be taken from the fact that this was a fire department and not an ambulance or rescue squad. The general public does not know the difference. In the media and throughout the community, red lights and sirens are red lights and sirens and even the best "medical" provider will be lumped (emotionally) together with the failings of others. What happens in South Fulton, Tennessee matters to residents of San Clemente, California, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, Grand Prairie, Texas, or anywhere else that offers subscription ambulance service. In the wake of this incident, all providers are going to have to work that much harder to maintain the trust of the community.

Like extortion
From the legal perspective, it seems that the "subscription" in South Fulton is more like extortion. Not unlike the gangsters who terrorize local urban neighborhoods by demanding "protection" payments from business owners lest their establishment be burned or their employees killed.

I see no difference because there is no difference when the fire department, by policy, demonstrates such wanton behavior.

It is anyone's guess how the situation will pan out for the Cranick family and I am no expert on Tennessee law. However, I truly hope that everyone from the chief down to the personnel on the scene is severely punished for their unjustifiably reckless, wanton, and spiteful conduct and abandonment of duty. I hope the County is made to pay an exorbitant sum of money to the Cranick family. And I hope that the condemnation of this department by the rest of EMS is loud enough and vehement enough to make everyone think twice before allowing a tragedy like this to ever happen again.

Shame on you South Fulton Fire Department. When the law gets you, and I believe they will, I hope the punishment is but a drop in the bucket compared to what Karma has in store.

About the author

David Givot, Esq., graduated from the UCLA Center for Prehospital Care (formerly DFH) in June 1989 and spent most of the next decade working as a Paramedic responding to 911 in Glendale, CA, with the (then BLS only) fire department. By the end of 1998, he was traveling around the country working with distressed EMS agencies teaching improved field provider performance through better communication and leadership practices. David then moved into the position of director of operations for the largest ambulance provider in the Maryland. Now, back in Los Angeles, he has earned his law degree and is a practicing Defense Attorney still looking to the future of EMS. In addition to defending EMS Providers, both on the job and off, he has created as a vital step toward improving the state of EMS through information and education designed to protect EMS professionals - and agencies - nationwide. David is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. David can be contacted via e-mail at

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