Cover Story: Charging for fire service

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

SPARTANBURG, SC (WBTV) - When a house in Spartanburg caught fire last Friday, the owners didn't call 911.  They weren't sure they could afford to pay the fire department after hearing news reports that some departments are charging homeowners to fight fires.

So taking personal responsibility they tried to put out the flames with a garden hose.

But what happened in Spartanburg-- people fearing getting charged by the fire department--  is not an isolated incident.  We did some researching and homeowners in other parts of the country have gotten sticker shock as well

How do local communities handle it?  It depends on where you live.

Their house in Spartanburg is still standing Monday, but the nightmare of trying to fight a fire with a garden house will live on for Willhemeena Fuller and her family.

She'd heard on the news that the fire department was going to start charging homeowners to respond.  Trouble was it wasn't in Spartanburg, but in next door Cherokee county.

There they adopted an ordinance allowing volunteer fire departments to charge insurance companies of those who cause accidents and fires.  County leaders enacted it to help taxpayers recover money spent responding to major accidents on I-85 which runs through the county.

Sometimes called subscription fees, they're legal in many states and they do come collecting.

"I said oh my God, they've gotta be kidding."  The Fairchilds in New Castle, Indiana were in shock. They got the bill for the volunteer fire department putting out the fire at their home $28,000.

"Bottled water, they charged for bottle water.  I always thought that volunteer fire department was just that."

Most times the bill goes to the homeowner's insurance company and the homeowner doesn't see it.. isn't out of pocket.

But not always as a family from Brazos county, Texas can attest.

"It's $14,650. We were billed per minute, per truck."

The Pipers thought the bill was fake.  They were wrong.

"You grow up believing that as a taxpaying law abiding citizen of the country, you're entitled to fire, police, road and bridges," says Angela Piper.

The chief of the volunteer fire department there, Gerald Burnett says, "The tax money that folks spend is intended to have equipment available, all the time, ready to go. Any use of that equipment ultimately really is an added expense."

No fear of it happening in North Carolina, the Office of State Fire Marshal tells us.

Volunteer fire departments here must have a contract.  They must be affiliated with a town or county government, which is where they get their funding.

South Carolina takes a different approach.  It leaves it up to local counties to decide how to handle fire service protection.  Two local counties, York and Lancaster, both are taxpayer-supported

Because of the negative publicity, the county council in Cherokee county, South Carolina last week dumped its plan to bill people and their insurance for responding to a fire.

Council members say it's now become a public safety issue.  And repealing it is the only way to overcome peoples' fears of calling 911 out of a fear of being charged.

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