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Fighting fire with fees

companies to charge for services

November 07, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Firefighters in parts of Washington County no longer will serve the public for free. Residents, businesses and the companies that insure them will get bills after calls are completed.

The cost of dropping off a pump for a flooded basement will be $50.

Cleaning up after a small oil spill will run $300.

The bill for putting out a house fire? $1,000.

The way to avoid these expenses, fire officials say, is to be a subscriber and pay a much smaller annual fee in advance. Residents and businesses that subscribe will be exempt from all other charges.

For example, a family in the Funkstown Volunteer Fire Co.'s coverage area who subscribes for $30 per year will not have to pay the fire department to put out a fire. The minimum subscription fee for a business is $50.

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However, the fire department will send a bill to a subscriber's insurance company to pay whatever amount a policy covers. The balance will be written off.

If, say, the charge for service is $500 and the insurance company covers $100, the remaining $400 will not be collected.

Nonsubscribers, though, will have to pay the $400 on their own.

Volunteer rescue squads have charged for ambulance rides for years, but for many fire departments, it's relatively new.

The Volunteer Fire Co. of Halfway, Md., started its program on Oct. 1, but still was processing paperwork last week, so no bills had gone out yet, Chief Jeffrey Ringer said.

Both Funkstown and Longmeadow Volunteer Fire Co. are planning to start their billing programs on Jan. 1.

Asked why his department will bill for service, Larry Iseminger, the Funkstown fire department's president, said, "Because we need the funding and because the voluntary contribution fund drive rate was dropping year after year after year."

"We're certainly not looking to make a profit on this," said Dr. Robert Flint, the Longmeadow fire department's president.

He said Longmeadow won't send a bill to an insurance company if a subscriber says no.

Latimer said raising money through bake sales and chicken barbecues is a strain.

"They don't volunteer to become fund-raisers," he said. "They volunteer to become firefighters."

Two years ago, Jason Baer, the president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association at the time, estimated that 25 percent to 40 percent of households and 10 percent of businesses contribute to fire and ambulance fund drives.

In Halfway's district, the figures are about 33 percent for residences and 2 percent or 3 percent for businesses, Ringer said last week.

"We're running out of money," he said. "Calls are going up. We're not getting any kind of reimbursement."

Longmeadow's response rates are about 15 percent to 20 percent for businesses and about 30 percent to 40 percent for residences, Flint said.

A letter Funkstown sent in its district says the overall donation rate has been less than 25 percent for the last five years.

The Washington County Commissioners are glad the fire departments are trying to increase revenue through insurance companies, Commissioner William J. Wivell said.

"We had always encouraged them to do it," he said.

However, fire departments might be at a disadvantage because - unlike ambulance squads - "a lot of their calls aren't billable," Wivell said. "Or, they're turned back if they get to the scene."

At least one fire department won't take part.

"We have never billed and we have no intention of doing it," said Tom Altman, a member and past chief of the Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Department. He said he was not speaking on behalf of the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association, of which he is the president.

Altman said billing seems out of place at a volunteer fire department.

Ringer disagreed.

"Just because we're volunteer, doesn't mean the equipment is free," he said.

Altman didn't know which other fire departments are planning to start billing, but he said some have done it for a long time.

For Halfway, that's true, but only to a degree, Ringer said.

He said the department has sent invoices, listing the cost of calls, off and on for about 10 years. Payment was voluntary, though, and response was mediocre, he said.

Longmeadow tried the same thing for about six or seven years, the department's chief, John Latimer IV, said.

"We quit because of low returns," he said. "We never tried to collect."

Latimer said Longmeadow is concerned about the pace of development in its district outpacing its funding.

He said revenue from billing will help the fire department pay drivers it hires during the day, when volunteers are tougher to find.

Halfway, Longmeadow and Funkstown - and possibly a few other fire departments - plan to use Holdsworth, Pelton & Associates Inc. of East Berlin, Conn., a consulting company, to handle their billing. Holdsworth, Pelton & Associates has done Halfway's ambulance billing for several years.

President and founder Bob Holdsworth said his company will receive 11 percent of the money it collects through bills, about the industry average.

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