Fire Departments Charge for Service, Asking Accident Victims to Pay Up

PHOTO Victims, Insurance Companies Complain Fire Departments are Double-Dipping for Services

It came in the mail less than a month after Darline Fairchild watched her family's home go up in flames -- a bill for the nearly $28,000 it cost the fire department to extinguish the blaze.

"I felt my body turn cold and I just broke out into a sweat," Fairchild told ABCNews.com. "It was awful. I said, 'It's got to be a mistake.'"

But it wasn't a mistake. The Fairchilds, of New Castle, Ind., were just one of a growing number of fire and accident victims across the country who are being billed for fire department services once funded solely through taxpayer money.

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Already banned in several states, the practice of charging to respond to house fires and car accidents -- dubbed a "crash tax" or an "accident tax" -- has horrified victims and earned the ire of insurance lobbyists who say their member companies are being targeted to make up for budget shortfalls.

"Part of the sales tactic when municipalities consider this is, 'Hey, don't worry, it's going to go to insurance,'" Jon Zarich, director of government affairs for the Insurance Institute of Indiana, told ABCNews.com. "But it's the homeowner that's responsible once coverage runs out."

The Fairchilds' bill for $27,989.12 was itemized with hourly rates for the use of fire trucks, hoses and the firefighters' time, even a case of drinking water for firefighters who got thirsty. The total for five hours of fire personnel on the scene totaled more than $8,500. The use of the fire trucks cost more than $12,300.

Fairchild, who was shuttling her family between hotels when the bill arrived, said she immeidately contacted her insurance company, which was similarly shocked.

"She said, 'That's what taxes are for,'" Fairchild quoted the flabbergasted insurance employe as saying. The insurance company has since taken over the bill and the Fairchilds do not know if it was ever resolved.

"I don't know what's going to happen," she said. "I'm not paying it, I know that."

Insurance Companies Fight Back Against Third-Party Vendors

Zarich said his organization is familiar with the billing company that sent out the Fairchilds' bill. Most municipalities and fire districts across the country that have turned to these types of service charges contract with billing companies who then take a cut of the collections.

But Emergency Services Billing Corporation, Zarich charged, has been grossly inflating charges on behalf of their clients. In the last 18 months, the institute's member companies have reporting seeing their average fire service charges go from $300 to $400 to between $2,000 and $5,000, Zarich said.

Indiana's state fire marshal lists appropriate service charges as up to $250 for a vehicle response and up to $150 for each hour of assistance, but Zarich said ESBC's estimates are almost always higher. ESBC's Web site doesn't list specific rates, but advertises it's own rate policy based on charges for every 15 minutes a fire department's equipment and personnel are on scene, with the fees taking an emergency responder's rank into consideration.

ESBC spokesman Rob Blackford confirmed to ABCNews.com that his company ignores the state recommendation, saying the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, allows fire departments to charge what they see fit in exchange for mitigating the environmental impact of an accident or fire.

"I don't care what the fire marshal says at all," Blackford said. "The insurance companies owe this."

He confirmed that the Fairchilds' insurance company was refusing to pay the $28,000 bill and that ESBC would be pursuing the charges in court.

"Every time you have one of these fires, it's an environmental disaster," Blackford said. "Should we make the person who is responsible for the problem pay or should we raise your taxes and my taxes?"

He, instead, blamed insurance companies that collect premiums from their customers, then refuse to pay when called upon.

"I think that's criminal. It's embezzlement," Blackford said. "They're taking the premiums and not paying the claims."

Blackford said his company would never go after homeowners if their insurance company refused to pay, but Zarich said they've heard an increasing number of horror stories about accident and fire victims being harrassed for payment.

Zarich said the Insurance Institution of Indiana would like to see the government crack down on ESBC, but has also been lobbying for an eradication of this practice in general.

"You don't want to be thinking can you afford it when your house is on fire," he said.

Florida became the most recent state last year to ban such fees for emergency services. Seven other states, including Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have some sort of law banning accident fees. Indiana banned police response fees in 2008, but the law did not include provisions for fire departments.

Angela and Ralph Piper certainly weren't expecting a bill when their 2-and-a-half-year-old dream house in Bryan, Texas, burst into flames over the summer after being hit by lightning.

The couple was able to grab their photo albums and rush out of the house with their three sons, but firefighters could do nothing to save the home, which Angela Piper said burned for more than seven hours.

Their house a total loss, the family had moved into an apartment at a nearby Christian boys' ranch when they got the bill two weeks ago for $14,650.

Fire, Accident Victims in Shock After Hefty Bills Arrive

"We were so shocked to get the bill," Piper said. They immediately called the fire chief to make sure it was real and found out that they had indeed been charged per truck, per minute.

"One truck, it was there 461 minutes and that charge was $3,841," Piper said. "We don't have any way to know if the charge was low or high or accurate."

The fire chief, Piper said, was understanding and eventually had their bill dismissed. But the Pipers said they want people to know that these types of charges are being levied and most people don't know about it. Fire department service charges, she said, will now be built into their insurance policy.

"We would have found the money," she said. "It was never as much about the money, but that we had received a bill for something we didn't know we could get billed for."

John Villeneuve wasn't as understanding when he got slapped with a $395 bill for a small brush fire outside his home, caused by neighborhood kids setting off Fourth of July fireworks.

A neighbor called 911 as he doused the flames with a garden hose. Even though the neighbor told the dispatcher the fire was out, a fireman in his personal vehicle stopped by to make sure, and Villenueve was billed three weeks later for the cost of the 13 volunteer firefighters that responded to the station and one fire truck, even though they never went to his house.

Villeneuve said he fought the bill with the township of Bellevue and the fire board. He was able to get the charge for the fire truck taken off, but was stuck with the remaining $195 tab and was threatened with collections when he refused to pay.

He gave in, saying, "$195 isn't much to fight for. Not even to get to a lawyer for. They called me disgruntled and everything."

So a few days before Christmas, Villeneuve paid his bill in person -- in pennies, all 117 pounds of them.

He wondered why departments that operate on a volunteer basis are allowed to charge at all.

"A volunteer is a volunteer. That kind of makes me scratch my head a little bit on that," he said.

Fire Department Chief: 'We Are Trying to Do the Right Thing'

While many of the departments that have hired billling companies to collect on their newly imposed fees are volunteer, it's a measure many professional departments are turning to as well and not just for house fires.

Sam Sorich, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies, said most of the new service charges he's seeing in his state are for car accident fees.

"We've seen quite a bit of activity in California," he said, estimating up to 60 municipalities and fire districts in the state now bill for services once deemed to be free. Most have programs that charge drivers if they are insured, assuming their policies will cover it, and waive the fee if the drivers are uninsured, which infuriates the insurance companies.

"It seems very unfair," Sorich said. "First of all, we think the whole process is unfair, but this is particularly unfair."

The Association of California Insurance Companies -- which runs the opposition Web site CalCrashTax.com -- lobbied for a bill to ban fire service charges last year, but the bill fell apart before it went to a vote.

"We believe these services should be paid by taxes," he said. "This is government service."

Dale Henson, chief of the Decatur Township Fire Department in Indiana, said taxes just aren't enough anymore to provide the services people expect.

Last year, his department decided to start charging $750 for extrications after car accidents. The department also had to borrow money to cover it's $1.3 million budget shortfall.

"Is it right or wrong? I don't see a problem with it," Henson said. "They're putting caps on taxes and all that, but yet we still have budget we've got to meet."

For Henson, the extra fees are not pouring in. Despite being dispatched for 41 extrications, his department collected just $1,100 in service charges for car accidents and house fires. The department hired a billing company, but Henson admitted he hadn't followed up to see why more money wasn't coming in.

"People want the same service, but we're not getting the same revenue," he said. "So we've got to get creative.

"I feel we are trying to do the right thing," Henson said. "We are not trying to just take more money from taxpayers."

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