Opinion: Throwing cold water on fee for calling firefighters

There’s never any upside to adversity. Whether it’s the loss of a job, an ill family member, a car accident or a house fire, such incidents wreak havoc with our everyday lives.

There’s not much the City of Red Deer can do to protect our jobs, or ensure our loved ones are in good health, but it can ensure that when car accidents or house fires occur, bureaucrats don’t add to the stress and red tape that inherently accompany such events, which can often be life changing.

Two years ago, the city stopped billing private insurance companies to recover the cost of responding to motor-vehicle crashes and fires. That means when the firefighters-paramedics that taxpayers pay for without complaint are suddenly needed, victims get a bill in the mail to recoup the cost of service.

The policy recently came to light when Erin Filer spoke up after getting a bill from the city. Filer suffered a seizure for the first time in March while she was behind the wheel of her car.

She struck a parked vehicle, and along with a $400 bill for the provincial ambulance she required, she was invoiced $645 by the city for the accident cleanup.

Taxpayers understand the notion of user pay. The city provides amenities such as swimming pools, for instance, and if residents or people from outside Red Deer wish to use them, they pay a fee for the privilege.

The wisdom of such a policy is that those who use the facilities a lot, contribute more money toward their operation than those who use them infrequently, or not at all.

Similarly, a fee for calling an ambulance can be defended on the grounds that without the charge, people would have no incentive to drive to the hospital themselves, or to visit a medical clinic for less serious medical needs.

It would be all too easy to dial 911 for an ambulance if there was no obvious cost associated with the emergency care.

The difference with fire protection services, of course, is that people don’t intentionally use them, like they would an amenity such as a swimming pool. They’re not going to dial 911 unless there’s a genuine need for assistance cleaning up after a crash or directing traffic.

Nor are people going to call the fire department to extinguish a non-existent blaze.

In fact, if someone else calls 911 as a good Samaritan, the poor victims are still on the hook for the costs, even though they don’t determine the level of response.

The city insists those who receive a bill for accident cleanup or for putting out a fire can submit it to their insurance company themselves.

“In 99 per cent of cases, it’s not an issue because the insurance company covers it,” says Fire Chief Ken McMullen.

That may be, but the policy puts Red Deerians in the awkward situation of being in the middle during a time of tremendous stress. After losing their homes to fire, or being involved in automobile collisions, they’re presented with bills that they must hope their insurance company will cover.

In Filer’s case, the bill came three months after the incident. If it hadn’t been for some dental work she needed getting done, the insurance case would have been closed, she said.

The city should review its policy. It admits, after all, that bills can’t always be issued, especially in the cases of those without an address.

While the city says those who are unable to pay their bills can appeal to the city, that’s cold comfort. The last thing someone experiencing financial hardship should have to do is beg to have their bill waived after experiencing a fire or car accident.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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