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

A growing number of towns are imposing fire service fees to close budget gaps.

ByABC News
February 3, 2010, 10:34 AM

Feb. 4, 2010— -- 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 "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.

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 "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."