PHILADELPHIA - After the flames have died down and the alarms and hoses have been shut off, an increasing number of fire victims across Pennsylvania are being left with more than a mess and an insurance nightmare.
They're being left with a bill.
Hundreds of volunteer fire companies, coping with lean budgets and a shortage of recruits, are trying to bolster their bank accounts by charging homeowners and businesses, or their insurance companies, for emergency services.
$200 per call
In Lancaster County, it can cost $200 an hour to have your house doused by a volunteer engine company. Expenses - such as flares, foam and disposable bags - are extra. In Lower Merion, the Union Fire Association recently announced that it wanted to start charging $250 per call, every call.
Fierce local opposition is likely to quash that plan, but fire experts say billing - becoming common in rural counties - could become a staple of volunteer fire budgets, which in turn could drive up insurance premiums.
"We have fewer people responding to more calls. Fire companies need more money, and this is one way many are finding to get it," said John Brenner, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire Services Institute.
There is no solid count of companies that bill for services that once were free, but experts estimate that 500 to 750 of the commonwealth's 2,400 nonprofit fire companies now bill. In New Jersey, where volunteer companies more often enjoy the benefits of fire taxes and stronger municipal support, government officials say there is no billing.
Pennsylvania companies are doing it out of necessity, experts say.
"Most fire companies are down to a 22 to 35 percent 'response rate' on fund-raising drives in their communities. Fire equipment costs are escalating, and they need to come up with supplemental income," said Randy Gockley, emergency management coordinator for Lancaster County.
The fees that fire companies charge for their services are usually covered by homeowners' and other general liability insurance policies. Most policies will reimburse fire companies up to $500 per emergency call, and volunteer companies often limit bills to that amount.
Still, choosing to charge is rarely an easy decision for fire departments. Many companies consider it contrary to their volunteer ethos.
"Some of us think it's the greatest thing in the world; some of us think it's the end of the volunteer service," Brenner said.
His fire company chose not to bill because "some of our members felt pretty strongly there was a moral problem with it. You're telling everybody you're volunteers, and then you're going to turn around and send a bill."
Chiefs at other companies look at it differently. When municipalities do not contribute enough and donations are down, billing is one of the only options left, chiefs said.
"Volunteers are more than willing to get up in the middle of the night to do things people wouldn't imagine - for free. They don't ask for benefits, they don't ask for a pat on the back. All we're asking for is a minimal amount of money to keep us doing a good-quality job," said Christopher Burns, chief of the Geistown Volunteer Fire Company in Cambria County.
Because there are no formal statewide or, in most cases, countywide billing guidelines, fire companies are approaching the practice in a variety of ways. Some bill directly after dealing with the flames; others ask for the check later. Some pursue property owners if insurance companies refuse to pay; others drop the claim. But no companies, chiefs and experts said, will deny fire protection to people who have refused to pay past fees.
As the practice grows, standards are starting to emerge. At least one firm, Fire Inc. of Bridgeville, Pa., has been formed to act as a professional billing service for fire departments.
"As a company, we've more than doubled, almost tripled, our business in the last year," said Fire Inc. President Brian Higbee.
Higbee's company is in the "cost-recovery business." Volunteer companies send their bills to Fire Inc., and the company collects, keeping a percentage of each bill.
Fire Inc., though, often has a difficult time collecting money from the insurance companies it bills.
Higbee said he collects only 40 percent to 60 percent of company claims within 90 days, and fire companies that go it alone usually experience even less success.
For most fire companies, that has translated into just a few thousand extra dollars a year so far.
"Many of the insurance companies are balking. They tell us, 'It's always something that's been free in the past,'" Higbee said.
But the balking appears due more to unfamiliarity with the practice then real financial objections.
"Frankly, when you're talking about a claim for a fire, a $500 emergency call charge is not going to be worth worrying about," said Brenda O'Connor, a spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association.
In states where fire-company billing is more common, claims are handled routinely by insurance companies, said Pat Musick, an executive with the Alliance of American Insurers.
Part of the confusion may be due to the murky legality of billing for emergency services. Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania has no laws either permitting or forbidding fire-company billing.
A bill being sponsored by Rep. Paul Clymer could clear things up.
Recognizing that "volunteer emergency-service organizations can no longer realistically afford or be expected to exist and provide services at a financial loss," the legislation would create county offices to determine fair billing rates and collect on behalf of the fire companies.
If the Clymer bill is made law and billing becomes widespread and consistent, it could spark insurance rate hikes, O'Connor and Musick said.
But Brenner and other firefighters are not bothered by the notion of higher rates.
"Whether people pay in taxes or at firehouse chicken dinners or in insurance premiums or service fees, they'll still have to pay," Brenner said.
"There's no getting around paying for fire protection."