Yesterday, I attended a local hearing held on a State House Bill, HB 2427, that would allow emergency service providers to bill individuals for those services, up to $1,000 per incident.  The purpose of the bill, to make sure our local volunteer fire departments have additional sources of revenue and have to spend less time running fundraisers to support the needs of the community, is incredibly important.

To put this in perspective, I overheard a story about one fire department who had a hazardous materials call that required them to use around $14,000 worth of materials to clean up the spill.  This puts a huge dent in the budget of anyone, let alone a very necessary public service.  Since many Department’s fundraisers only raise a few hundred dollars at a shot, you can begin to see how one unusual emergency could easily sap a budget and lead fire departments into a constant fundraising mode.  This clearly takes away from their main mission of community service, and has lead many folks to quit, saying they got into volunteering to serve the community, not become professional fundraisers.

The bill as written has many problems, that were brought out from the State Fire Commissioner, Local Departments, and even someone from the organization that represents township supervisors.  Currently, as written, if you pay taxes in a municipality with a fire tax, or contribute to your local volunteer department, you would not be billed for emergency services provided by that Department.  That sounds fair, but we all know emergencies don’t always happen at home or within your township.  I live on the border between two townships and two counties- which fire companies should I make donations to?  Does one donation cover my whole family, or do we need a donation for every person in the house?  How much of a donation counts?  If a $25 donation per year covers me for what costs the Fire Department thousands in the event of a serious emergency, is that even reasonable or fair?

We have to find a better way to make sure we have adequate emergency services.  We probably need to pay an additional tax to make sure we all share the benefit and burden of emergency protection.  Leaving our fire companies to try to scrounge endlessly for additional pennies is unacceptable, but so is enacting a piecemeal system so that if I have an accident in another township, I need to worry about a big bill based on the fact I never anticipated having an accident in that area.  Then there are the inherent problems in figuring out what each type of emergency might cost, what fair and reasonable costs are, enacting rate sheets, dealing with whether they should be revised and how often, etc.  I certainly don’t want to get into a situation where my emergency responders worry about scanning bar codes attached to emergency equipment before using it, to ensure adequate billing later on.

Additioanlly, there is the problem caused by complicated emergencies.  Two years ago, on Election night, Stephen’s Greenhouse, across from where I live in Kennett Township, had a large fire and several gas tanks exploded, sending sparks and embers down on the homes in our neighborhood and requiring 9 fire companies to respond.   In such a situation, who would get to bill or be billed?  Would Stephen’s, a small business, need to pay at least $1,000 to each of the fire companies involved?  Who that bankrupt them if their insurance company decided not to pay, putting them out of business forever?  What about the homeowners in the surrounding area who benefitted from property protection?  Who gets to bill each of them, and how much?  Likewise, when a woman from Delaware had an accident after having a seizure and drove her vehicle into our yard, what is her responsibility? Do we bear any responsibility because we made the emergency phone call and the accident happened in our yard, because she is a resident of another State?

These are examples of emergencies that have happened to us within the past few years.  It’s also the reason why we always make a donation to our local fire company, and why I will probably extend that support to other fire companies in the area.  I have personally benefitted from the expertise and protection of our local services, but so have we all.  Apparently, only about 30% of the people asked make yearly donations to local fire companies, which also gives you a sense of how many people take our emergency services for granted.

The question becomes how do we ensure that our local volunteer, combination and even career fire companies are adequately funded and don’t have to do so many fundraisers, yet stay a central part of our community.  I look forward to the chicken BBQ and Bingo nights.  I want to make sure our fire halls don’t HAVE to do these events to fund public safety,but I also know I would miss them if they were gone as well.  We need some of these events to help celebrate our local volunteers and to honor them more than in a parade once a year.

What’s the answer to the problem?  There may not be one answer, but it will definitely require wider participation and/or taxation to fund emergency preparedness.  Perhaps a line item flat tax, like the one enacted for any sales tax you may not have paid in any one year from purchases out of state, on the State or Local tax forms would work, providing “insurance” for any emergency you might have within the State, regardless of locality.  Maybe not- I am sure there are other proposals that will be considered, including enacting a law that would require insurance companies to pay for emergency services provided by volunteer companies, which is not currently required by law.  What we do know is that the piecemeal, volunteer donation based system is inadequate, and needs to be addressed.

While I applaud the motivation behind this bill, it is also clear that it needs a lot of work.  We need to make sure the public doesn’t become worried about generating bills for themselves or their neighbors, so emergencies go under-reported.  What happens if folks who currently give their name and number when calling in an emergency are suddenly worried they will be on the hook for a bill if no actual service is needed?  That is the sort of chilling effect we want to avoid when looking at ways to ensure our emergency responders have the funds they need to do their jobs.

I would also like to thank to all the legislators and officials that came to the hearing yesterday in Kennett Square, and the information they shared with the community.  It’s about time we all stepped up a little more to help our local fire companies, and these events are necessary to make sure we all take notice.