ABC News: Fire Departments Charge for Service, Asking Accident Victims to Pay Up
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.
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
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