Vicky Bell wasn’t surprised that fire trucks cruised into her neighborhood after her home went up in flames — after all, she did dial 9-1-1. What did shock the Tennessean woman was that the emergency crew never came to her aid.
Instead, says Bell, they parked their engines down the street and watched her home burn to the ground.
Bell and her boyfriend live in a rural town just outside of the small city of South Fulton, TN — so rural, in fact, that residents in her neighborhood rely on the South Fulton trucks to battle blazes for them. Even though they are fully equipped to do so, however, the South Fulton Fire Department doesn’t act unless residents from adjacent towns pay a $75 annual subscription for protection.
In the case of Bell and her boyfriend, the crew was indeed dispatched to the scene. When they realized that their customers weren’t paying patrons, however, the responding firefighters sat back and watched.
"You could look out my mom's trailer and see the trucks sitting at a distance," Bells tells WSMV-TV.
While she watched the crew set by idly, her mobile home and most of her possessions were obliterated. She tells KFVS-TV that she was only minutes away from being lost in the blaze herself.
Now she and her boyfriend are left homeless and she says they " have no idea where we will go from here.”
Despite criticism throughout the area, officials refuse to change their policy. "There's no way to go to every fire and be able to keep up the manpower, the equipment and just the funding for the fire department," says South Fulton Mayor David Crocker.
His advice? Learn your lesson from Bell’s bad day.
"After the last situation, I would hope that everybody would be well aware of the rural fire fees, this time," he adds to the Tennessean.
Benny McGuire, the mayor of Obion County where Bell and her boyfriend live, tells WPSD-TV that the whole thing isn’t even up for debate.
"To me, it's not an issue. To me it's like car insurance. If you have a car, you pay insurance. If you want protection, you pay the price."
Bell adds that most residents of her neighborhood don’t pay the insurance. She says she simply never thought she would need to.
In a nearby town, Gene Cranick lost his home in a fire last October and says he just forgot to pay his insurance. He begged firemen and offered them money to put out the blaze to no avail while they sat by and watched. He lost four pets and his home in the blaze. In the adjacent community of Blount County, such spontaneous coverage can be purchase if an annual fee of $110 doesn’t seem reasonable. In lieu of the subscription, people there can pay $2,200 for the first two hours that firefighters are on the scene if they forfeit the annual fee.
In some cases, firefighters in these pay-per-blaze burbs will turn their houses to the homes of paying patrons while shrugging off alleged deadbeats. Last year Obion County dispatched engines to battle a fire but the crew only stayed on the scene to keep the flames from spreading to a house belonging to paying customers. The home that started the blaze went up in smoke, literally, while crews watched, gear in tow.
Fire Chief Doug McClanahan of Blount County says his own department has revised their policy after that incident in Obion. “Having subscribers is a good thing, but to punish people to the point that you don’t do anything for them is wrong,” he tells The Daily Times.