Firefighter Fees Catching On, Even With Volunteers

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) -- Firefighters around the country are increasingly billing victims for putting out flames despite resistance from those who say such fees conflict with the mission of the largely volunteer fire service.

Municipal and volunteer fire companies are following the lead of ambulance companies, which began implementing fees about 15 years ago, said Robert Holdsworth, whose firm handles billing for both ambulance and fire companies, including three volunteer fire units in western Maryland.

``A lot of new fire billing companies are popping up. We're starting to trip over them,'' said Holdsworth, president of Holdsworth, Pelton & Associates Inc. of East Berlin, Conn.

Firefighter billing is most prevalent in the West and Southwest but the practice is spreading, Holdsworth said Monday. Earlier this year, firefighters in Dayton, Ohio, and Kingwood, W.Va., started billing for their services.

In Washington County in Maryland, the Halfway, Funkstown and Longmeadow volunteer fire companies are just setting up for billing, The (Hagerstown) Herald-Mail reported Sunday. Their fees range from $50 to deliver a pump for a flooded basement to $1,000 for extinguishing a house fire.

Members of the companies said the fees are to make up for declines in voluntary contributions in recent years.

The Washington County government hasn't formally endorsed the practice; it doesn't have to, since it doesn't control volunteer fire companies. But Gregory I. Snook, president of the Board of County Commissioners, said the commissioners have encouraged firefighter billing as an alternative to burdening taxpayers.

``It's critical to these companies. They receive just limited funding from the county for their operation,'' Snook said. He said the county pays utility costs and vehicle insurance premiums for all the volunteer units.

Some volunteers object to the practice. Thomas Altman, president of the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association, said his company, the Clear Spring Volunteer Fire Department, gets all the money it needs from donations, carnivals, barbecues, bingo and tip jars, a legal type of gambling.

``We have trouble understanding how a volunteer needs to be paid for his services,'' Altman said.

He acknowledged that other fire companies in the county might have different needs. But if a volunteer unit demands money for its services, ``it's time to name it something else,'' Altman said.

Leonard King, secretary of the Maryland State Firemen's Association, said he knew of no other fire companies in the state charging fees for their services.

Of the nation's 1.1 million firefighters, nearly 785,000, or 71 percent are volunteers, according to the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Fairfax, Va.