Daily Kos

Dying in Fires is Po' Folks Problem

Sun Feb 18, 2007 at 05:47:54 PM PST

Poor people suck.  When their heat gets cut off in the middle of winter, they get cold.    I mean, what's up with that?  Toughen up, mates.  Cold builds character.  Just ask the Donner Party. Then, they do stupid stuff like use their stoves to heat their apartments to keep warm.  Or, they illegally hook up an electric space heater.  Yeah, it's stupid. I mean, put on another sweater, goddamit.  Make the kids run laps around the kitchen to raise their body temperature - that'll get 'em warm.   Another thing that pisses me off about poor people and winter - when their place catches fire in the middle of the night, they usually don't have smoke detectors that work.  I mean, what the fuck?  And I'm supposed to feel sorry for them when the whole family goes up in smoke?

(The preceding was an imaginary water cooler conversation at a leading conservative think tank. "Personal responsibility" is what conservatives are all about.)  

In the northeastern U.S., it gets cold in the winter.  That's just a fact of life.  Despite climate change issues, in the middle of February, the weather tends to be frigid in cities like Philly.  It's also a fact of life that when people are cold, they naturally want to get warm, regardless of the space they occupy in the socio-economic continuum. Poor people don't want to freeze any more than Society Hill mavens.

There was a time in the not-to-distant past when Pennsylvania state law proscribed that a public utility could not shut off service to a customer in the middle of winter.  It made sense from a standpoint of sound public policy, and certainly, from a public relations standpoint for the utilities regulated by the state. What company would want to take the heat (so to speak) for a granny who was found frozen to death because her natural gas supply was cutoff?  Or a family died because they were using a single portable heater that caught fire - because they couldn't afford a tank of heating oil?

Those heady days of corporate responsibility (and fear of bad PR) are long gone in the utility industries.

Since the beginning of 2007, there has been a spate of deadly home fires in Philadelphia.  Nearly 20 people, almost half of them children, have died in the fires.  There have been quite a few other non-fatal home fires, as well. The primary cause of the fires?  Lack of a primary heating source due to service termination, and the use of space heaters and heat sources such as stoves.

When I started working on this story last week, I emailed Doug Oliver, who is the Director of Communications at Philadelphia Gas Works.  I asked Mr. Oliver if he could provide some relatively simple statistics regarding service terminations since the beginning of the current heating season.  Not surprisingly, he didn't respond. However, an article in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer on the rise in fire related deaths gives some insight:

...More than 7,700 Philadelphia households were without central heat as of the end of January due to termination of service by Philadelphia Gas Works, the municipally owned utility that is the primary source of home heating in the city.

"It's concerning to us any time we know there's a household out there without heat when it's cold," said PGW spokesman Doug Oliver. "But we can't allow a customer to continue to use gas they're not paying for."...

But PGW is apparently more than happy to allow a customer that they can paint as a "deadbeat" to die in a fire that can be brushed off to a lack of functioning smoke detectors.  

In 2004, the (then) GOP-controlled Pennsylvania State Legislature passed a law with the Orwellian title, The Responsible Utility Consumer Protection Act (as part of an omnibus piece of legislation that also increased rates nearly 20%).  Up until the time this legislation was passed in 2004 , public utilities were forbidden by law to shutoff  service to anyone during the winter months.  There are similar statutes on the books in most northern U.S. states, and for a reason.  No one wants to be responsible for Granny being found in her rocking chair frozen like a popsicle because she couldn't (or wouldn't) pay the heating bill.

Deadly fires are a completely different animal, though.  Almost every news report covers the "no smoke detectors" aspect of these deadly fires.  It's impossible to argue with the concept that every home should have functioning smoke detectors.  Very few news reports, though, dig into the root cause of the fires in the first place - poor people whose utilities were cut off because they were behind in the bills, they were trying to keep warm with whatever is at their disposal, and something goes terribly wrong in the middle of the night, functioning smoke detectors or not.

A poor person (or family) dying in a fire at 2AM in the inner city during the middle of February isn't a sexy thing.  The coiffed talking heads on Action News will tut-tut about the lack of functioning smoke detectors, and then move on to the next Anna Nicole Smith story.    

There was a time when the utility industry was (reluctantly, perhaps) part of the social contract with the lowest economic strata of society.  It just wasn't good form to cut off a family's utility services in the middle of winter.  No more.  It's the poor people's fault.

Before someone jumps my butt about LIHEAP programs, let's stipulate something - funding for LIHEAP programs have been cut at federal and state levels, and the level of economic distress needed to qualify for assistance is almost Dickensian.  

But again, "working poor" ain't sexy.  Let 'em eat cake.  Just watch those candles on the cake - they could be deadly.

Originally posted at the revised and extended All Spin Zone - complete with intact blogroll, and gratuitous sex!!

Tags: working poor, utility shutoffs, winter moratorium, Public Utility Commission, fire, Rescued (all tags) :: Previous Tag Versions

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