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Council could vote on mitigation rates tonight
Measure would allow RHFD to recoup cost of responding to wrecks, fires
A accident such as the one involving this tanker on Oct. 17 at the Highway 144 entrance ramp to I-95 can tie up Richmond Hill Fire Department firefighters and equipment for hours and cost thousands of dollars in the process. - photo by File

Richmond Hill City Council didn't vote tonight on an ordinance to allow its fire department to charge for responses to fires and other services.

A first reading of the measure was held earlier this month. A second reading is required to turn the proposal into reality. If adopted, the ordinance will take effect in 30 days from its passing.

The ordinance is intended to recoup some of the money the department spends responding to such things as traffic accidents, Richmond Hill Fire Chief Ralph Catlett said earlier.

“When we got out on a run, we use resources,” Catlett said, adding that a single response to a wreck on I-95 can cost the city as much as $5,000 to respond. “A lot of our budgets can’t absorb those costs.”

He estimated the city spends anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000 a year in such responses.

The ordinance would allow the city through a third party agency to bill the insurance companies of at fault parties. Other departments already do, Catlett said.

The draft ordinance notes incidents requiring responses from RHFD are increasing each year, as are demands placed on the department from Environmental Protection Agency and Homeland Security requirements. The ordinance also says that raising property taxes to pay for the additional cost isn’t fair “when the responsible party(s) should be held accountable for their actions.”

And, the ordinance gives the city the power to establish the mitigation rates for both emergency and non-emergency services provided by the fire department.

“The mitigation rates shall be based on the actual costs of the services and that which is usual, customary and reasonable,” the ordinance reads, “which may include any services, personnel, supplies and equipment …”

An exhibit included with the draft ordnance shows the city could charge anywhere from $435 to $1,800 or submit itemized bills for responses to traffic accidents, depending on the severity and level of response needed; and a fire engine spending “additional time on scene” can be billed at $400 an hour.

Those rates are average billing levels, the proposal says, but when claims are submitted, they’ll be itemized. Still, the information provides some insight into costs incurred during RHFD responses.

For example, responses to incidents involving hazardous materials, or HAZMAT, might start at $700 for a Level 1 response and go to $5,900 for a Level 3 advanced response.

In between is the Level 2 Intermediate Response, which could cost $2,500, and includes “engine response, first responder assignment, hazmat certified team and appropriate equipment, perimeter establishment, evacuations, set-up and command, Level A or B suit donning, breathing air and detection equipment. Set up and removal of Decon center.”

Additional time on scene rates include the $400 per hour for a fire engine, $500 per hour for the truck and $300 per hour for miscellaneous equipment.

But that’s not all.

RHFD also will begin billing for false alarms, if the ordinance passes. The first false alarm in a year requiring a response is free, according to a list of charges.

The second in that same year will generate a bill of $100, the third $200 and fourth through sixth will be billed at $300 “per event” and not to go over more than $500 in one day.

It’s unclear from the information attached to the draft ordnance exactly who will be billed for the false alarms.

There’s also a list of proposed fire prevention and inspection fees, ranging from a $50 annual inspection fee to $25 for a “self-inspection fee” to $10 per incident report.

Other services, such as a review of a sprinkler system, will cost $100, and a fire marshal letter of compliance will run $30.

Fire investigations will cost $275 per hour, while responses to fires will be billed at the rate of $400 per hour per engine and $500 per hour per truck.

“This will be the most common billing level,” the city says in its list of charges. “This occurs almost every time the fire department responds to an incident.”

Another category addresses “illegal fires,” with the same $400 per hour per engine and $500 per hour per truck billing rate. It notes when fires requiring a response by RHFD are started during a time when “fires are regulated or controlled by local or state rules, provisions or ordinances because of pollution or fire danger concerns, such person or persons will be liable for the fire department response at a cost not to exceed the actual expenses incurred by the fire department to respond and contain the fire.”

Burning without a burn permit can also lead to a bill from RHFD, if the fire gets out of hand and the department has to respond. “The actual expenses will include direct labor, equipment costs and any other costs that can be reasonably allocated to the cost of the response.”

Special rescues are also addressed in the proposal, with itemized billing rates depending on what’s used and for how long – though in bold it reads: “Minimum billed $400 for first response vehicle plus $50 per rescue person. Additional rates of $400 per hour response vehicle and $50 per hour rescue person.”

All of the average mitigation rates were arrived at by itemizing the costs for a typical run, the city says, meaning from the time “a fire apparatus eaves the station until it returns to the station.”
Among the costs taken into account are wear and tear on equipment, repair, maintenance, labor – from wages to the cost of benefits such as retirement, worker’s comp and insurance.

There’s also a section involving late fees, noting that if it isn’t paid in 90 days, there’s a 10 percent late charge and a 1.5 percent per month fee added to the bill along with the cost of collections.

There’s no mention, however, of what it will cost to get a cat out of a tree.

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