It is the bill no one expects to receive in the mail following a vehicle accident. But if you drive across the Chicago suburbs and become involved in a car accident in which a local fire department responds, you may be billed for their emergency services.
Round Lake resident Joe Steffen said he spent years contesting a bill after he was involved in a three car accident in Grayslake in 2014.
“I immediately called 911 to bring the fire services and EMTs out because I was concerned about the people that were in that second car,” Steffen said.
Steffen said he declined all services from the first responders, provided a statement to the police and asked to leave the scene. But several months later he received a $1240 bill from the Grayslake Fire Protection District.
“I didn’t think it was fair that I was being charged for services I didn’t use,” Steffen said.
Charging non-residents for emergency fire services is legal in Illinois. NBC 5 Responds surveyed Chicago-area fire chiefs to learn which departments and protection districts charge fees to non-residents when responding to vehicle accidents and car fires in their jurisdictions.
Forty-four departments responded with information on their fees. While these charges can differ between municipalities, non-residents could be billed $250 per vehicle per hour and $70 per firefighter per hour. Some departments may also charge a flat fee for extrication services or responding to a vehicle fire.
“At the end of the day, if there’s an incident response, we have to have some cost recovery mechanism and that’s really what those fees are for,” said Wheaton Fire Chief Bill Schultz.
Schultz is also the president of the DuPage County Fire Chiefs Association, which represents fire chiefs in the western suburbs. He said many public sector entities, including police departments and municipal administrative offices, have fee structures in place.
“The residents are paying tax dollars. A non-resident is not,” Schultz said. “With any tier type of charges, it’s about trying to equalize as best as possible. It’s never going to be one hundred percent.”
However, local ordinances can have a built-in mechanism for appealing the charges. Schultz and other area fire chiefs told NBC 5 Responds that fees can be reduced or waived.
Steffen said he challenged the bill after both the at-fault driver’s insurance and his own insurance refused to pay. He said the bill was eventually reduced to $780. But when he didn’t pay the fee, Steffen said he received a collections notice.
NBC 5 Responds contacted the Grayslake Fire Protection District and explained Steffen’s concerns. Chief John Christian said it was the first he had heard about it and he agreed to waive any charges that Steffen was facing.
“Sometimes bills can be confusing,” Christian said. “It is not our practice to send people to collections.”
A spokesperson for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America said individual driver policies will typically cover a major accident or hazmat situation. But the spokesperson said emergency service bills for fender benders or other minor accidents are typically not covered.