John Fairchild, chief of the Polson Volunteer Fire Department and Polson Rural Fire Department, made headlines across Montana earlier this month when news outlets reported his proposal to begin charging drivers responsible for accidents a response fee, as a way to deal with rising costs and dwindling budgets.
Since December, online comments and letters to local papers have been harshly critical of the proposed Polson fees, describing it as a form of double-taxation, where citizens are charged additionally for fire department services they already pay for with their taxes. And in the span of a few weeks, Polson has inadvertently become the poster-child for this controversial fee structure, on which the Polson Rural Fire Board was scheduled to vote this week.
Yet other fire chiefs throughout the Flathead Valley – at least those interviewed for this story – expressed nearly universal puzzlement that the proposed Polson fees have garnered so much attention: especially since such fees are relatively common throughout Montana and the nation. Kalispell has had a special response fee in place since 2001. Evergreen Fire Rescue also currently employs a similar fee structure. And last month, without much opposition, the Bigfork Fire Department’s board voted to institute such fees. If a Bigfork driver is found responsible for a car accident that prompts a response from the fire department, that driver is going to get a bill.
“It’s going on all over the U.S., actually,” Wayne Loeffler, Bigfork fire chief, said. “It’s up to each individual community what they want to do.”
If Bigfork firefighters are called to a crash, spend less than an hour at the scene and aren’t required to use any special power tools, the charge will be $500. If firefighters need to use hydraulic tools to extricate a victim, like the Jaws of Life, the fee goes up to $750. If firefighters are on scene for more than an hour, the fee increases to $1,500. If the accident requires special tools, and lasts longer than an hour, the fee is $1,750.
The Bigfork Fire Department will also charge for responding to gas line breaks, with fees ranging from $500 to $1,000, depending on how long firefighters are required to be there. Cleaning up hazardous material can range from $300 to $750, depending on the size of the spill and whether an absorbent is necessary. Businesses or homeowners that fail to fix a faulty fire alarm will get a bill for $250 after firefighters respond to a fourth false alarm.
Bigfork’s fees track roughly with Polson’s, which according to most reports would range from $435 to $2,200. Fairchild did not return a call for comment.
Loeffler emphasized that in Bigfork, if someone suffers a house or business fire and the fire department responds, that person will not receive a bill. He and other chiefs describe protection against traditional structure fires as what the public pays for with their taxes. But the chiefs interviewed see the added fees as a way for fire departments to grapple with the increased expectations on the part of the public that firefighters will respond to accidents and needs beyond simply extinguishing fires, while department budgets remain relatively stagnant.
Fire departments are now expected to possess the costly, and highly specialized, tools capable of cutting through modern, high-grade steel vehicle frames, or clean up fuel spills. It’s work that is both time-consuming and expensive, particularly for volunteer departments whose firefighters may be leaving their jobs to respond to a call.
“This equipment that we use is very expensive,” Loeffler said. “It helps us to support our income and helps us pay for time people are out there.”
It’s also a way for tourists, who may not pay taxes in the fire district, to shoulder some of the cost if they cause an accident. And, the chiefs say, these fees make up a small part of most departments’ annual budget.
Doug Scarff, chief of the Smith Valley rural fire department, described an accident that occurred where a logging truck jack-knifed and collided with an SUV. While Smith Valley firefighters responded to the accident, another logging truck drove through too quickly and also slid off the road. Then, one of the drivers waiting to pass the scene suffered a heart attack.
“We were out there for eight hours,” Scarff said. “The tax base just isn’t enough to handle everything that goes on in our complicated rural fire districts anymore.”
According to Scarff, his department, through a billing company, will send a bill to the insurance companies of the parties in an accident following responses that require extended manpower or materials like foam.
“When there’s a complicated scene or a complicated fire, we’ll submit something,” Scarff said. “It’s to supplement, augment the taxes that are paid.”
But Smith Valley won’t bill people directly, and Scarff thinks implementing such a policy where citizens, and not their insurance companies, receive a bill could induce a backlash from the public.
“I’m sure there would be,” he said. “The economy is tight and jobs are hard to find.”
Rod Dresbach, chief of the West Valley Fire Department, can see his district eventually adopting a similar fee structure for the same reasons.
“If I were to get my trustees to do it right now, we’d be doing the same thing,” Dresbach said. “I can see it happening very soon.”
But the potential for backlash is what keeps some fire departments from implementing a fee policy.
“I’ve considered it but I’ve elected not to pursue it,” Rich Hagen, chief of the Columbia Falls city and rural fire departments, said. “It’s definitely got some negative aspects to it as far as public perception.”
For whatever reason, Hagen said Columbia Falls firefighters spend more time responding to traditional structure fires, and don’t spend as much resources on vehicle accidents, so he doesn’t see a real need – yet – for fees.
“I just haven’t been willing to fight that battle, I guess,” Hagen added. “That doesn’t mean that somewhere down the road I wouldn’t pursue it if I had to.”
Tom Kuntz is the chief of Red Lodge Fire Rescue, and also on the board of the Montana State Fire Chiefs Association. According to Kuntz, fire departments located near interstates are more likely to charge fees, since they spend more time responding to vehicle crashes.
Despite the controversy in Polson, Kuntz believes it ultimately falls on individual communities, and their elected fire department boards, to decide whether fire response fees are necessary.
“It ends up being a local decision to determine what’s the best way to fund their organization for their community,” Kuntz said. “They have to decide on the level of service they’re going to provide.”
“There’s undue attention to this issue in Polson,” he added.
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