The last thing you want after going through the traumatizing event of witnessing a fire, is for a bill of thousands of dollars to arrive on your doorstep. Imagine that - your home was just at risk of burning down, and after the fire is put out, you receive a bill for calling out the fire department.
It sounds insanely unfair but unfortunately, this is the reality a lot of people are facing across the United States - but why are people being charged for fire services? Surely, that is what taxes are for, right?
To save you any surprises in the future, here is some information regarding fire services and the fees you may be charged with if you ever call them out to save your home.
Do I Have To Pay For Calling The Fire Department?
In most cases, no.
911 is free and fire services in most counties are usually paid for through your taxes, and so, they will respond to every emergency call they get. If you are involved in an accident or emergency, you normally will not be charged or billed.
Except, if you live or have an accident somewhere where fire services are not funded through tax revenue or have emergency response fees in place.
In these areas (most likely municipalities and cities), the fire department and other emergency services are funded through other means like fire subscription fees. There, residents pay a yearly charge to have access to the fire services available in that area.
Another way you may end up getting billed for calling the fire department is through emergency response fees.
Even if you have paid your taxes and the fire services are covered through tax revenue, you may still have a bill asking you to cover the cost of the dispatch, equipment, and wages of the firefighters involved.
Again, this depends on where you live and where the accident takes place as each county and state has different laws in place surrounding emergency response fees.
What Are Emergency Response Fees?
In the US, emergency response fees are fees that emergency services can charge after they have responded to an incident. These fees are known under a bunch of different names, including fire department charge or accident response fee, but is also derogatively called the ‘crash tax’.
Emergency response fees are put in place to provide additional revenue to emergency services without raising taxes.
These kinds of fees are quite common in municipalities and are also charged for other administrative services connected to sewer, water, and trash collection. Now, they can apply to your emergency services - including the fire department.
What basically happens is that after the fire department is called to an emergency, you will receive a bill afterwards charging you to cover the cost of the response.
Some fire departments will bill the victim of the accident, others will charge the owner of the property that was involved (this varies from department to department).
Even if you are not the one who called for the emergency services or refused their help, you could still wind up with a bill from your fire department.
The reason why these fees cause such a concern amongst Americans today is that a lot of them already pay for fire services through their taxes - why are they being billed for something they have effectively already paid for?
Again, these fees are used to generate additional revenue for emergency services and if you are a citizen who has auto insurance, the fire department will ask for your auto insurance company to pay up.
Sometimes, you may not even know about it - some fire departments will go straight to your auto insurance company without your knowledge.
Another reason why these fees are unpopular is due to the potential abuse of these fees.
There have been reports of instances where simple ‘fender bender’ accidents have seen fire trucks roll up when they are not needed nor are necessary - but the billing company for that fire department has still dispatched them so they can claim a fee!
However, emergency response fees are not available everywhere. In response to this unpopularity, states like Alabama and Oklahoma have put in place legislations that prohibit or outright ban emergency response fees, and some states like Indiana only stopped them for police services and not fire services.
But in some states, emergency response fees are still legal and if you are involved in an accident or emergency, you could end up being billed the fire department’s call out charge.
To find out if your city or municipality have emergency response fees in place, then contact their offices to enquire about them.
Specifically ask if an ordinance permitting the practice of billing auto insurance companies for police and fire department services has been passed or is under consideration - this is just to avoid confusion and get a straight answer.
This way, if you are involved in an accident, you can be prepared if a bill does make its way to your doorstep.
Can I Get An Emergency Response Fee Waived?
The cost of an emergency response fee depends on the scale of the emergency. After all, it costs more to dispatch two fire trucks compared to only one - but some people have been billed thousands of dollars that they just can’t pay.
So what happens? Can you have an emergency response fee waived?
Well, it depends.
If you have auto insurance, then the insurance company you are with will normally handle the bill. Sometimes, you may not even know about it.
The whole transaction between the billing company for the fire department and your insurance company can happen completely without your input or knowledge.
But if you are billed directly, you don’t really have a lot of options. You can take the bill and fight against the fire board. Sometimes, the bill will be waived or reduced - but if they decide you have to pay, you have to pay.
A gentleman in Michigan was charged with an emergency response bill when children accidentally set fire to a bush on his property with fireworks.
Although the gentleman extinguished the fire himself with a hose, he was still charged because a firefighter arrived to check that the fire was indeed out.
The gentlemen fought the bill, had it reduced to $195, and was threatened with collections when he still refused to pay. So the gentleman paid the bill to his fire department - in pennies.
So if you are billed for an emergency response and you have tried and failed to have the bill reduced or waived, you have no choice but to pay - making this fee feel more like a fine.
But emergency response fees aren’t available everywhere. Another alternative way for fire departments to generate funding is through fire subscription fees, and the outcome of not paying those can sometimes be worse.
What Are Fire Subscription Fees?
Fire Subscription Fees work like any other subscription service - just like how you pay monthly for Netflix and access to its database of movies and television shows, you can pay either monthly or yearly for your Fire Subscription. What do you get in return?
If your home or land catches fire, you can ring the fire department and they will come and deal with the fire.
A subscription service like this is available in counties where fire services are not included in taxes, and so a subscription service is used to fund the fire department and its services in that county. You can choose to opt in and out, and the amount of the fee varies from county to county.
If you do choose to opt out of a fire subscription or you forget to pay these fees, then the fire department may refuse to deal with any fire or accidents that occur on your property.
This is what happened to a man in Tennessee in 2010. He forgot to pay his county’s annual fire subscription fee of $75 and when his home caught fire, the fire department refused to save his home.
The gentleman even offered to pay the fee then and there but his offer was refused. The fire department turned up to save the house next door - whose owner had paid their annual fire subscription fee - but stood by and watched the other house burn to the ground.
To some, this sounds unfair and perhaps even unprofessional - firefighters should not be delayed when they get an emergency call. The first thing they should be doing is preparing to leave, not checking to see if they are allowed to let a building burn to the ground.
It also creates a debate around the morality of fire subscription fees. After all, is it right to just let someone’s home burn down for the sake of a few dollars?
But unfortunately, in rural areas, this is the reality a lot of homeowners face. If an annual fire subscription fee is not paid, then that building is not covered by fire services - and if it catches fire, the fire department can refuse to save it.
When you are purchasing a house, it is best to research the county and see what services are already paid for through taxes. Talk with your real estate agent and ask them about taxes in the area.
You may need to subscribe to your fire services, even if you never call them. After all, it’s better to spend a few dollars a year rather than lose thousands in a matter of minutes.
So - will you get charged for calling the fire department?
It all depends on where the accident is taking place. In most circumstances, you will not get billed because the fire services are covered by the taxes in the area.
However, some areas may bill you with an emergency response fee to generate extra income for their fire department and in places where the fire department is funded through a subscription service, they may refuse to help you if you have not paid your yearly fee.
Whether you believe these fees are fair or not, they still stand in a lot of places today and could one day affect you. To save you some potential nasty surprises in the future, find out how your fire services are funded so you can be prepared if a bill finds its way to your doorstep.