Volunteer Departments in Conn. Starting to Charge Fees

July 28, 2013
The two volunteer companies in Brookfield mailed letters in July informing resident of the new practice, which is expected to garner between $6,000 and $8,000 annually.

July 28--In most Connecticut towns, volunteer firefighters are depended upon to answer calls for everything from flooded basements and car engine blazes to rescues of people and property from burning homes.

Their importance is unquestioned. They drop everything on a moment's notice to protect their community for no salary. Much of their expenses is borne by donors rather than taxpayers.

The challenge is the ever-escalating cost of firefighting -- routine replacement tires on a fire truck can cost as much as $1,000 and airpacks $7,000 apiece -- with resources on the decline.

Some volunteer companies across the state and nation have opted to begin charging service fees, which are covered by homeowners insurance. Standard policies provide between $500 and $1,000 for fire and emergency-related services, according to industry experts.

In Brookfield, a town with two volunteer companies, residents were mailed letters in July informing them the new practice would begin in August. The companies expect they will collect between $6,000 and $8,000 annually.

Lou Menendez, president of Brookfield Volunteer Fire Co., says he was not a fan of the idea at first. He changed his mind, however, when he realized the fees are calculated into most homeowner policies and residents will only be charged if they incur enough fire damage that they file a claim.

In certain cases, the insurance information will be delivered directly to the company's billing service, the Holdsworth Group in Cromwell, the largest emergency billing agency in the state.

For the past decade, it has handled charges for the town's paid ambulance service.

Bob Holdsworth, president of the business, said this is not a new practice and is not just for volunteer companies. It is also only used for about 25 to 30 percent of all calls since it is intended to recoup the material costs of fires that will trigger a significant insurance reimbursement.

A typical kitchen or garage fire can cause as much as $50,000 worth of damage. A $1,000 fire suppression fee is an insignificant insurance expense, yet it would help the responding fire company recoup its costs without seeking a higher operating budget.

Brookfield First Selectman Bill Davidson, a retired insurance agency owner, said he is an "enthusiastic supporter" of the approach.

In towns like Brookfield, Davidson said, taxpayers are getting a deal. Not only do they have devoted volunteers who spend hundreds of hours of their time and money to meet state standards, but they do so at nominal expense.

That's not to mention the life and property saved due to the quick response of these men and women, he said. If a fire department saves an insurance company from covering a $100,000 renovation, the $1,000 service fee "is not a bad deal," Davidson said.

With new laws requiring equipment replacement at certain regular intervals, and the cost of materials and equipment escalating beyond what can be collected through donations, Davidson said volunteer departments need to seek out other revenue streams.

"Why isn't it reasonable to have a fee for services when insurance will pay, and not an individual?" Davidson asked.

Jim Ferlow, fire chief of New Milford Waterwitch Hose Co. No. 2, said the idea is now under debate by his department leaders.

It is certainly a way to replenish the coffers for the non-reusable materials -- such as back braces and cleanup supplies -- required at car collisions with injuries or when fighting structure fires, he said.

"This is not about paying firefighter salaries," Ferlow emphasized. "This is about how we keep manageable the material costs to the department to a minimum."

In Bethel, First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker said the volunteer fire departments' costs are pretty much covered through the town, so he would not favor tapping residents' insurance policies. But he can see the benefits for towns that cannot afford the costs.

The state of California has long charged insurance companies such fees, said New Milford Mayor Patricia Murphy.

She said she believes it is a worthwhile consideration, a way to ensure volunteers have what they need to deliver the best response.

"The insurance companies aren't giving you a discount because your fire company doesn't charge, but the guys two towns over do," Murphy said.

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Copyright 2013 - The News-Times, Danbury, Conn.

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