The Firemen Next Time

“So the question is, do you want to live in the kind of society in which this happens?” So wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman of the Tennessee fire whose flames have consumed the punditocracy over the past week.

Krugman and other pundits on the left have pointed to the fire that destroyed Gene Cranick’s home in Obion County, Tenn. — after the fire department from the nearby town of South Fulton refused to put it out because Cranick had not paid the subscription fee — as an example of the potential consequences of free-market policies.

In an attempt to equate the fire department’s actions with opposition to Obamacare, Krugman argued, “This is essentially the same as denying someone essential medical care because he doesn’t have insurance.” MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann said the incident offered a glimpse “into the America envisioned by the Tea Party#…#just a preview of what would come in a kind of à la carte government.”

In his week-long coverage of the event, Olbermann also touted the condemnation of the fire department by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), the largest fire-fighters union. IAFF president Harold Schaitberger proclaimed in a press release that “everyone deserves fire protection because providing public safety is among a municipality’s highest priorities.” The press release concluded that because of a “pay-to-play policy, fire fighters were ordered to stand and watch a family lose its home.”

But what Schaitberger and his allies didn’t say is that fire fighters in municipal fire departments have several times been ordered to stand by and watch families lose their homes, and sometimes lose their lives. And who gave those orders? None other than the IAFF and other unions enforcing the “pay-to-play policy” known as the strike.

If the liberal blog site Think Progress wishes to frame fire protection as an issue of “two competing visions of government” and include the response to the Cranick fire as “the conservative vision#…#on full display” (which it isn’t necessarily, as I will explain), then the liberal vision of an urbanized and unionized “professional” fire department has to be scored as resulting in more property damage, injuries, and deaths. And if the IAFF and its allies get their way with federal legislation to mandate collective bargaining for public-safety officers in every American community, the deadly fire-fighter strikes of the recent past will almost certainly be a part of our “progressive” future.

Consider what happened in Memphis 32 years ago. On July 1, 1978, 1,400 union fire fighters walked off the job after rejecting the city’s offer of a 6 percent pay increase, leaving only 150 non-union personnel to assist supervisors. “Over the weekend of July 2 and 3, fires broke out around the city in far greater than normal numbers,” recounted professors Armand Thieblot and Thomas Haggard in their comprehensive book Union Violence: The Record and the Response, published by the Industrial Research Unit of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “On Saturday, the first day of the strike, 225 alarms of fire were reported, and on the following day, there were about 125.” Memphis mayor Wyeth Chandler told a local newspaper that the group of fires “was one of the most unreal scenes I’ve ever seen. It was like a World War II newsreel.”

Observers of Obion County debated the issue of whether fire fighters should ever let a fire burn even if a citizen neglected his responsibility to pay a fee. But in the heat of the Memphis pay dispute, members of the fire-fighters union went beyond simply letting buildings burn. They actively obstructed rescue efforts and started at least some of the fires themselves.

Two striking fire fighters pleaded guilty to burning down a vacant apartment building, and the pattern of other fires looked suspicious. “A number of the fires broke out in the areas served by fire companies which were already engaged in fighting fires at other locations within their area of responsibility,” wrote Thieblot and Haggard. “Officials speculated that only persons with knowledge of the internal organization of the fire department could set fires in such a strategic pattern.”

Some of the strikers also “welcomed” their replacements — from volunteers to National Guardsmen — in unique ways. Tires were slashed on fire-department vehicles and ambulances. The ambulances also had their engines sabotaged and their medical equipment damaged. “At the central fire station, a small group of strikers broke into the building by smashing a glass door and then physically removed nonstriking firemen from the building, striking and injuring several in the process,” reported Thieblot and Haggard.

Similar damage and destruction occurred in the 1975 fire fighters’ strike in Kansas City, Mo. In The Municipal Doomsday Machine, his 1970s exposé of corruption in public-safety unions, journalist and National Review founding editor Ralph de Toledano vividly described a city paralyzed by union violence. According to his and other accounts, when fires hit — in suspiciously high numbers, as in Memphis — non-striking firefighters found fire extinguishers that had been filled with flammable liquid, oxygen tanks that had been emptied, and fuel tanks of fire trucks that had been fouled with water.

The 23-day Chicago fire fighters’ strike in 1980 was mostly free of the violence that plagued Memphis, Kansas City, and other places, but its duration made it much more deadly. On February 14, all but 400 of Chicago’s 4,300 fire fighters gave the Windy City a valentine by walking off the job. They formed picket lines in front of its 120 fire stations, shutting down more than half of them.

During the strike, “24 people died in incidents involving calls for help from the fire department,” the Chicago Tribune would recount 20 years later. One tragedy that could have been avoided was the death of brother and sister Tommie and Santana Jackson — ages 1 and 2, respectively — who perished in a fire in an apartment that, according to Time magazine, was “just half a block from a closed fire station.”

By contrast, no human beings were killed in Gene Cranick’s fire in Obion County, although some pets unfortunately perished. The South Fulton fire department refused to put out Cranick’s fire, but it wouldn’t have blocked him from using his own working fire extinguisher, as unions likely would have done during a strike in a big city.

This is not to say that South Fulton’s policy is perfect. I tend to agree with NR’s Daniel Foster that once the fire fighters had responded to the neighbor’s call and readied their equipment, the right thing to do was to put out Cranick’s fire as well. Maybe that’s because I’m an animal lover, and I believe that pets shouldn’t have to pay for their owner’s negligence.

Beyond that, the answer is federalism. States and local communities should decide what is best for themselves in protecting residents from fire. This could include contracting out to private fire services, allowing insurance companies to create fire brigades for their home-insurance policy holders (my Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Iain Murray has written on how this worked in the 19th century), or letting homeowner associations contract for fire protection in the same way they often do for services such as garbage collection.

But as with health care, liberals want to take away federalism in fire protection and force all American communities into a one-size-fits-all unionized model. The biggest congressional priority of the IAFF over the past few years has been the so-called Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act, which would force unionization and collective bargaining on every one of the nation’s local fire departments.

And far from delivering fire protection that is quick and efficient, this legislation is almost guaranteed to bring big-city slowdowns to every town. According to the watchdog Public Service Research Council, public-employee strikes quadruple, on average, in the years after state laws mandating public-sector collective bargaining take effect.

So the question is, to paraphrase Krugman: Do you want to live in the kind of society in which this happens? Too bad if you answered “no,” because Krugman’s allies are determined to take the choice of non-unionized fire departments away from fire fighters and homeowners.