Sunday, February 26, 2006

That Monett Fire

Several articles, letters, and blog posts have been written about the February 13th fire near Monett in which the Monett Rural Fire Association stood by while property burned. The property is owned by Bivaldo Rueda, who had not paid dues to the Monett Rural Fire Association. Reaction has varied, which I think surprises some people.

The Springfield News-Leader published a story Friday that provided some additional reaction, but not much new information. In fact, the follow-up story contradicts the News-Leader's February 17th report which included this:

Rueda managed to get one mobile home out of danger, using a garden hose and buckets, but was burned in the process, [Barry County Sheriff's Detective Robert] Evenson said.

The Friday story, written by the same reporter (Ryan Slight), contradicts the "garden hose and buckets" claim and led to the article's headline ('I felt like I was ... in a movie'):
Rueda claimed some firefighters seemed amused as he scrambled to fill water in a bucket to douse flames.

"I'm struggling to put out the fire and I'm sweating big time," he said. "I felt like I was a major participant in a movie, and the other guys were the audience."

A few neighbors were sympathetic and wanted to assist, but there was only one bucket, Rueda said.

"There was not even a garden hose," he said.

This slight difference (no pun intended) is not a big deal, but it does indicate that what has been reported may not be the complete or entirely accurate story.

Other bits and pieces also may lead to different conclusions, now that they are known. For example, the lead from the original story. . .
Firefighters near Monett stood by and watched a fire destroy a garage and a vehicle because the property owner, who was injured battling the flames, had not paid membership dues.

. . .leaves me with the impression that the firefighters showed up, but did nothing. The follow-up article's lead leaves a different impression:
Bivaldo Rueda was pleased to see a "brave" firefighter come to his rescue last week.

A Monett Rural Fire Department member appeared with a water hose within minutes of a fire that broke out in a garage on his property south of Monett, Rueda said Thursday through a Spanish-speaking interpreter.

But the firefighter's supervisor ordered him to halt after discovering Rueda did not pay membership dues to the department, the Monett man said.

Which is worse, starting to help and being stopped, or never helping at all? Which seems more cruel?

Some people have defended the Monett Rural Fire Association (which must not be confused with the Monett City Fire Department) which has a long-standing policy of not fighting fires for those who have not paid their annual dues. And on one level, I can't blame them. According to Randy Cole, assistant state fire marshal, there is no state law requiring membership-supported fire districts to help nonmembers in any situation. And, as noted by Monett Rural Fire Department Chief Ronnie Myers the membership-based organization could not survive if people thought the department would respond for free.

Others have questioned the motives of the firefighters, believing race was involved in their decision NOT to fight the fire. The property owner is Hispanic.
Rueda said he enjoyed living in Monett for the past 11 years, far from the bustling traffic and higher crime rate in his former home of Dallas. The Mexican native, who speaks some English, has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years.

Some might argue that a person who has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years ought to speak more than "some" English. But is that relevant?
Rueda, a 45-year-old father of two children, said he never received any notice that he needed fire protection. The department has said it sent out fliers.

"I just assumed. I never thought about it," Rueda said.

His home is located in the city of Monett, which has a tax-supported department, he said.

Rueda has four acres south of Monett where he indulges a hobby of fixing cars for himself and numerous relatives.

Rueda does not live on the property where the fire took place. He lives in the city of Monett where his home is protected by the Monett City Fire Department. Would it occur to any one living in a tax-based fire department community that they might have to pay dues for fire protection on rural property?

I must confess, this is the first time I've ever heard of such a practice. I grew up in a farming community of 6,500 people. We had a volunteer city fire department that also answered calls to rural areas. News reports of rural fires always included that the firefighters had used the truck provided by the Farmers Insurance Association. It's offices were on the ground floor of the building that housed the first radio station at which I worked. I always thought it odd that an insurance company would provide a fire truck. Now I wonder if that truck was paid for through dues area farmers paid to the association.

This is one time the News-Leader could have made excellent use of their web site by providing a map and list of fire districts, indicating which are dues supported and which are tax supported. No need to print it in the paper using limited space. But it would have been perfect for the web site. But that's another rant.

Is what the Monett Rural Fire Association did unusual? That question is hard to answer, but the News-Leader does provide some evidence that it is not.
Melvin Owens, Mount Vernon Rural Fire Department chief, said his membership-driven department relies on an estimated $25,000 it receives in annual dues. The department routinely puts out notices reminding the public of fire membership, he said.

While his department and others benefitted from equipment provided in Homeland Security grants, department budgets remain tight, he said.

Mount Vernon's policy is to respond to a fire involving a nonmember and bill the person. The person is charged $150 per firetruck and $25 per volunteer at the scene, Owens said.

"If they won't pay it, we won't be back," he said.

However, the department would not ignore anyone in a life-threatening ordeal, such as someone trapped in a burning building, the chief said.

Owens recalled helping one nonmember with a house fire in November, but the person never paid. When the nonmember's property caught on fire in recent weeks, the department declined to help, he said.

I don't recall reading or hearing a major outcry over that incident. So is race a factor in the Monett story only because the news media have chosen to make it one? Consider this bit:
Doug Harris, who lived two houses away from Rueda's rural property, said immigrants should take initiative to know whether they have fire protection.

Newcomers should comprehend English and understand American laws and customs before moving to the country, Harris said.

"I don't think it's necessarily our responsibility to educate them," he said.

Harris, who pays annual membership dues, said he did not want the rural fire department charging nonmembers a higher fee for service.

"If they did that, I probably wouldn't pay a membership. I would just wait until I had a fire and then pay them whatever. That's probably what a lot of people would do," he said.

Here, the reporter has placed an emphasis on race by including Mr. Harris' thoughts that immigrants should comprehend English, which can only refer to those from non-English speaking countries.

And let us not forget the Monett area is home to Glenn Miller, director of distributions for the Aryan Alternative, a white supremacist publication. Racism is certainly no stranger to southwest Missouri.

To its credit, the News-Leader "filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking any written policy on how the department decides whether to fight a fire. The request also sought, among other items, a copy of anything that was sent to property owners explaining a need to pay for fire protection."

On Thursday, in direct response to the February 13th fire, the Purdy Fire Department announced a new campaign to broaden its service area, including taking memberships all the way to the southern city limits of Monett. From the Monett Times:
"We've had a number of calls since the fire south of Monett on February 13th from people concerned that we will watch their house burn down if they haven't paid in time. Although it's important for dues to be paid, our policy is to fight any fire we are called to and check membership status afterward.

"Missouri statutes allow us to respond and bill non-members $100 for responding, plus up to $500 per hour of operations. We have utilized the billing process for quite some time now, and have had little problems collecting the fees," the [Purdy Fire Chief Mike Redshaw} added.

UPDATE: The link to the Monett Times article had expired. I've updated the link to the archived story.