Car wrecks can be costly. And now they're getting more expensive for some people who need firefighters to help them.
At least 15 Chicago-area fire departments now charge the public fees for responding to accidents and vehicle fires, and roughly half of them started the billing practice within the last year as more municipalities search for new revenue sources, according to information obtained by the Better Government Association and NBC 5 Investigates.
The charges are typically sent to non-residents only and may be a flat fee or rate based on the number of responding fire trucks and personnel, as well as the length of time on the scene.
Departments that charge these types of fees include: Alsip, Berkeley, Blue Island, Broadview, Calumet Park, Chicago Heights, Flossmoor, Forest View, Hillside, Maywood, Midlothian, North Palos Fire Protection District, Roberts Park Fire Protection District, Stone Park and Westchester.
A member of the Jenkins family of Berkeley was driving through Broadview when his vehicle caught fire at a gas station in May, 2013. Firefighters rushed to the scene, doused the fire and were gone within fifteen minutes.
The Jenkins later received a bill for nearly $400 for the fire department's services.
"I figured that's something tax dollars pay for, not me," said Mr. Jenkins, who asked that we not share his first name. "I mean, did they even use $400, do $400 worth of work?" Jenkins said.
But since they were non-residents of Broadview, they were charged.
Illinois state law has allowed municipal fire departments to charge non-residents for their services since 1996. The Broadview Fire Department said it started its billing practice in 1998.
Broadview Fire Chief Thomas Gaertner said his department uses the money to pay for firefighting equipment.
"For small, suburban towns such as ours to be able to afford to provide these services, we try to recoup as much as we can," Gaertner said. "Otherwise, it's on the taxpayers' backs of the village to provide these services."
Gaertner said revenue from non-residents was low in 2013. The village billed out $5,155 of which $1,920 was collected.
However, the BGA said the billing technique used by a growing number of area fire departments may raise potential questions.
"They bill per firefighter and they bill per engine so it raises questions as to whether or not they are billing for the services that are actually needed on the scene," said BGA investigator Katie Drews.
But when seconds count, fire departments go all out in the name of safety. Gaertner said he expects more municipalities to follow.
"I think you'll continue to see it. Budgets are tight. We're all trying to provide the best service that we can possibly provide and it costs money," Gaertner said.
Insurance typically covers the fees but an industry group said accident response fees add unnecessary costs that could ultimately affect the premiums that you pay. According to Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, several states, including Indiana, have passed laws or resolutions prohibiting municipalities from charging these fees.
Jenkins vehicle was in between insurance at the time of the car fire. He said the bill has since gone to collections. However, the Broadview Fire Department said it is willing to speak to the family about the charge.