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Are Fire Services Headed Back to the Days of Insurance Markers and Fee-Based Services?

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By Leischen Stelter

Today, the Murrieta, Calif. city council will be considering a plan to force residents to pay a subscription fee for emergency services. The proposed fee would cost $4 per month per household and residents who choose not pay the fee will have to pay for their emergency services out of pocket, according to this article. The reason? Money, of course, 0r rather the lack of it. The city council is proposing this subscription-based emergency service plan to help reduce costs and increase reserves, which it estimates will give it about a $700,000 boost.

A subscription-based model was also recently proposed by the Brooksville, Fla. city council, but council members decided to back away from the plan (which involved a fee AND tax) after residents and business owners decried its fairness. That proposed fee would require residents to pay a base fee of $106 along with .77889 per $1,000 worth of improvements to their property, according to this article. While the initiative is currently off the table, council members say they will revisit the proposal in coming months.

With stagnating budgets, will more municipalities start moving toward a fee-based approach for fire services? This revenue model received major criticism after a 2010 incident in Obion, Tenn. where firefighters refused to extinguish a house fire because the homeowner had not paid the annual $75 fee for fire protection. Fire Engineering Magazine wrote an excellent article about this incident and discussed the struggles of municipalities to pay for fire protection services.

This is a fire insurance marker issued by the Baltimore Equitable Society in 1927. This is one of several markers owned by Brothers Three fire museum.

The author makes a great point that back in the 18th and 19th centuries, insurance companies would form their own fire brigades to protect structures they insured. When called out to a fire, the first thing these fire brigades would do was check for the presence of a fire insurance marker. If one wasn’t there, they would simply allow the structure to burn.

My grandfather is a former Cincinnati firefighter and dedicated to preserving the history of the fire service (the man built a fire museum in his backyard with the help of his two brothers who were also career firefighters and now deceased—check out his personal fire museum here or a PDF of a newsletter about his collection here). Anyway, I remember him showing me one of the insurance placards as part of his collection and thinking it sounded bizarre, but as the Fire Engineering article points out, this subscription-based model is part of the origin of the fire department.

However, our society has changed a lot since the 19th century. While I think the Obion, Tenn. case was an anomaly (I can’t imagine any of the firefighters I know standing around watching a house burn knowing they could do something about it), is this subscription model a feasible way to get people to PAY outright for fire services (besides through taxes)? What are the legal implications for forcing people to pay like this?

The bottom line is that municipalities are under intense pressure to figure out funding sources  for fire services. It’s got to get paid for some way. What other solutions have municipalities been adopting to help pay for fire and emergency services?

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