County policy puts blame for 'pay for spray' mistakes on firefighters
OBION COUNTY, Tenn. — Fighting some fires and turning their backs on others: it's a controversial county policy that lots of folks living in Obion County, Tennessee, and even the firefighters themselves say they hate.
Right now, if you live outside city limits in Obion County and don't pay a $75 yearly rural fire subscription fee, firefighters are forced to let your house go up in smoke.
Recently, the county made changes to that policy that put firefighters on the hook if someone makes a mistake.
Regardless of whether the homeowner paid the fee, firefighters will respond if someone's trapped inside. The fear is, what if someone's inside, no one knows and that person dies?
Another common concern is the database of subscribers. What if by mistake someone who paid the fee is left out and firefighters let the home burn?
Folks in Obion county said both scenarios are very real and very scary.
"The lady called from inside the house, 'I'm trapped. I'm inside the house,' Obion County 9-1-1 did exactly what they were supposed to do. They did not look up the subscription. They called. We went. End of story," Obion County Fire Chief Jamie Evans said.
That woman is mother of three Carrie Clark.
"Even with a towel on my face that I found in the floor of the bathroom, I couldn't breathe," Clark said. "All I could think about was my family, my kids, my husband, my parents, my grandparents."
Surrounded by black smoke, Clark climbed onto the top of the toilet and found her way out a window.
"All I remember is seeing sunshine out of all the smoke," she said.
Even though Clark's husband Dustin is a firefighter himself, his very own department wouldn't have responded if Carrie had not been trapped inside.
"In a perfect world, this wouldn't be in place," Chief Evans said.
He hates the so-called "pay for spray" policy and worries that someday, someone might make a big mistake.
"There's a potential out there that we could decline a call from someone who actually filled out that contract and paid for the service. That's our fear," Evans said.
Evans said he's required to check the computer database before responding to a county fire. While he's not responsible for putting names in the database, he fears under the new county contract, he would be responsible if someone's left out.
"I can't edit it," Evans said. "I can't do anything but access and look at it, so I really don't think it should be my responsibility to take the blame."
Evans said it's another problem with a policy firefighters fear could cost someone's life, something Carrie and Dustin Clark appreciate now more than ever before.
"As long as I got my wife and kids, that's all that matters," Dustin Clark said.
It's the county clerk who's responsible for entering the information into the database. Local 6 spoke with the county budget chair Danny Jowers, who said the reason why the agreement includes the part that says the county would be held harmless in an error is because the county's attorney said something like that needs to be in there.
Jowers said he doesn't believe this contract is worth the paper it's written on. He said if a mistake were made, it's likely everyone, county, city, fire chief, and all involved, would be sued.
The Obion chief said the county promised the fire departments that if 70 percent of the folks in the county would buy fire protection, the county would allow the public to decide in a special election if they wanted higher taxes and fire protection for everyone. This year, 70.1 percent of the county residents paid for it, so we'll have to wait and see if this issue actually makes it on the ballot.
Carrie Clark was taken to the hospital and admitted for burns and because she had trouble breathing. The Clarks believe a box fan started the fire.