Fire companies seek reimbursement

April 18, 1997


Staff Writer

For years, Tri-State area victims of fire could count on their local fire department's help without getting billed for that service.

But these days, as volunteer fire companies look for new and creative ways to make ends meet, the idea of billing is no longer a taboo subject.

Some area fire companies are considering seeking reimbursement through insurance companies.

And many fire companies in the Tri-State area are already trying to get paid back for incidents involving hazardous materials.

Keeping hazardous materials at bay can drive up the cost of fighting fires.

A March 11 tire fire in Cearfoss cost firefighters $40,000. More than half of that was spent on a special foam used to douse the blaze. In that case, homeowner Denzil Poling's insurance company has refused to pay.


When Ollie's Bargain Outlet east of Chambersburg, Pa., burned down in December 1994, firefighters spent $5,000 on foam. Again, the insurance company refused to pay, said Max Lenherr, chief of the Fayetteville (Pa.) Volunteer Fire Co.

"It gets expensive for fire companies to use those chemicals," said Nick Barbuzanes, chief of the Mercersburg Montgomery Peters Warren Volunteer Fire Co.

Seeking reimbursement for fire costs is not a common practice, fire officials said.

Doing it on a more regular basis or charging people a per-fire fee has been discussed in Waynesboro, Pa., said Fire Chief Don M. Ringer.

But the idea hasn't moved forward because of concerns that it would hurt donations, which he said have been very generous.

"We may be hurting that. We're appreciative of the people who support us," Ringer said.

Another worry is that homeowners' insurance rates would rise, he said.

Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Co. is talking about seeking reimbursement from insurance companies, Lenherr said.

Before that can be done, a state law outlining the rules for getting repaid would have to be enacted, he said.

In Washington County, each fire company decides whether to send a "statement of charges" to people involved in costly fires, said Jay Grimes, president of the county Fire and Rescue Association.

Fire companies don't routinely seek the nominal fee - about $250 - that most insurance companies allow, Grimes said.

It is up to a homeowner to seek the fee, he said.

Williamsport Fire Department, where Grimes is chief, may soon be getting more insurance reimbursements through an evaluation form that will be sent to everyone the department serves.

The form will ask people if the department was timely, professional and provided adequate services.

It also will ask them to consider applying for an insurance company reimbursement or giving a donation.

"We're leaving it up to the individual rather than requiring them to do it," he said. "The primary concern would be to evaluate us. We think that's just as important as the donation."

Right now, somewhere between 12 percent and 40 percent of residents donate to their local fire company, he said.

Fire companies in Berkeley County, W.Va., don't have to worry about billing because of a special fire tax that residents pay. The fee is $45 per household in Martinsburg and $20 to $25 for each structure outside the city limits.

Jefferson County, W.Va., doesn't charge a fire fee. But fire chiefs there don't think it's worth it right now to seek money from insurance companies.

"We have always felt that public service, treating the public correct, has paid off," said Shepherdstown, W.Va., Fire Chief D. Lee Morgan. "If I have my way, I will always see to it that they are never billed. People have enough tragedy without that."

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