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.