06/19/13 — Firemen seek cost recoup

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Firemen seek cost recoup

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 19, 2013 1:46 PM

The $12,000 invoice the Goldsboro Fire Department recently submitted in hopes of recovering some of its cost associated with a lengthy wreck call is an example of why Wayne County needs a cost recovery ordinance for local fire departments, said Goldsboro Fire Chief Gary Whaley.

Whaley was one of three veteran county fire fighters Tuesday to lend their support to a proposed ordinance that would allow fire departments to levy fees to recover the costs of replacing or repairing equipment or supplies used or damaged at a scene, as well as to cover the cost of any extended on-scene time.

House fires and minor accidents would not be included in the ordinance.

Wayne County Commissioner Wayne Aycock, a veteran firefighter himself, said he had been approached about proposing such an ordinance.

The board took no action following Tuesday's public hearing on the ordinance, but added it to a work session planned for July 16 to review a study of the county's fire departments.

Whaley said the bill represents almost eight hours spent at the wreck scene.

"We need this ordinance," Whaley said during the public hearing. "We do have some leeway through the Hazardous Material Act of North Carolina, but it is difficult.

"This will make it a whole lot easier. As fire chief for the city of Goldsboro, we are happy that Mr. Aycock included us on this. It will make it a lot easier for us to recover (costs). The bill I just submitted was over $12,000 -- one incidence. That was being very conservative on what we used. By the time you use foam, manpower, those type of resources it gets kind of expensive. I think this is a move in the right direction, and we support it whole heatedly."

In the past, insurance carriers have asked for an ordinance to allow the departments to bill, said Jay Howell, who served as Nahunta fire chief for 34 years.

"If we don't have that ordinance they don't have to pay us," he said. "Sometimes they will, but many times they do not."

The ordinance work well in other counties, said Howell who is in his 44th year in the fire service.

"The fire service is a quasi-governmental agency and historically the fire service doesn't bill in North Carolina for services," he said. "We have local fire taxes that pay for our normal operating expenses, what we expect our cost to be in normal operations from year to year. When we have large emergency events in our district that require long duration, extra resources for clean up, recovery or mitigation of an emergency, the resources that we have in our local departments can become quite expensive. Plus we have fuel cost and equipment wear and tear.

"Because we a are talking about thousands of dollars in those rare, large events -- typically you would see it a a spill or highway incident -- it puts an undue strain on the taxpayers in our districts. So if we can pass that cost back to the responsible party that caused the accident to occur then we can recover our taxpayers' expenses in our district and not put an undue burden on our budget for that year."

The local fire chiefs will have the authority to trigger the bill or not, he said. If the bill is triggered, the local oversight committee ensures the fees are in line before the bill is sent, he said.

Steve Herring of the Grantham community said he was concerned that the ordinance would allow departments to "pick and choose." He suggested setting a specific number of hours before the charge would kick in.

"I don't think the intent is to overcharge anybody, or pick and choose," Whaley said.

"We have I-795 running through our district and if it rains hard we have traffic accidents almost every time," said long-time Belfast Fire Chief Larry Pearce. "There is a lot of potential there. We spend a lot of time training. We have a lot of expensive equipment we respond with and it does draw on resources from our community."

The ordinance would require that the departments submit documentation for any cost recovery to an Emergency Services Cost Recovery Ordinance Review Committee that would review the documentation before the billing process would be initiated.

The committee would consist of the fire commissioner; the board of commissioners' appointed representative, who is currently Commissioner Wayne Aycock; the director of the Office of Emergency Services, currently Joe Gurley; and staff as required; a commissioners-appointed representative from the Wayne County Firemen's Association; and any other industry specialist that the committee might determine is needed.

The fire commissioner, the Office of Emergency Services director and the Wayne County Firemen's Association representative would be the voting members.

The insurance company of the person at fault in a wreck would be billed first. If the company does not pay, then the responsible person or company would be billed.

The cost would not be recoverable if the situation involves a state or federally declared state of emergency.