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Story pick: When firefighters let a house burn

By Marc Fisher

When a Tennessee family watched firefighters arrive at their burning home and refuse to lift a hose to fight the flames because the family had neglected to pay its annual $75 fire protection fee, we thought it was time to send The Post's Michael Laris out to see what was what. Laris's report in today's Washington Post draws a connection between the Tennessee case and the decision voters in Montgomery County must make at the polls next month, when they vote on whether to approve a county initiative that would impose a fee for ambulance service.

Here's how Laris's story describes the link between the two cases:

[The Tennessee case] 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.

But county executive Ike Leggett, along with some journalists at The Post, thought the connection between the two cases was too tenuous. As Leggett is quoted saying in the story, the connection is "reaching for straws and a desperate argument to try to confuse the public."

In fact, as the story takes pains to point out, the Montgomery initiative would not result in anyone being denied ambulance service, and the fees would not be paid directly by residents, but rather through their health insurers.

Still, opponents of the fee say those distinctions are only points on a spectrum, and the essential fact behind both cases is that some want to pull Americans away from the New Deal-era notion--a theory of American government that traces all the way back to Benjamin Franklin's advocacy for volunteer fire companies--that the public obligation is to provide a safety net for all.

One of the nation's largest firefighters groups condemned the Tennessee county for allowing firemen to stand by as a building burned, and another longtime fire department official wrote that the country is in danger of unlearning the lessons it learned in its infancy, when independent firefighting companies placed firemarks on those buildings that had paid for insurance, and let those without the marks burn to the ground. The same piece notes a much more recent example that actually connects the fire debate to the ambulance fee question, recalling a 1978 incident when the town of Pinellas Park, Fla., prohibited its paramedics from helping a 16-year-old boy who'd been struck by a car because he was outside the town's boundaries.

Slippery slope arguments always require a degree of skepticism, and good journalism pastes liberal doses of skepticism over most any argument. The Laris story does that, but also performs the essential function of airing out the opposing sides of a debate--and adding important historical perspective. The debate pitting concepts of individual responsibility versus those of collective obligation are at the red hot center of American politics these days, from the tea party phenomenon right down to the ambulance fee debate in Montgomery County. This is as basic as it gets--it's a good old rip-roaring debate over who we are and what we expect from each other. So very American.

By Marc Fisher  | October 14, 2010; 7:45 AM ET
Categories:  More on the story, Story Picks  | Tags:  Leggett, ambulance fee, ambulance service fee, cranick, cranick fire, fire fee, fire protection fee, tennessee fire  
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