Six PE Fire Depts. Will Bill Insurers Of Culpable Drivers

Published 11:49 am Tuesday, January 20, 2015

PRINCE EDWARD — Six county volunteer fire departments will begin billing the insurance companies of culpable drivers on February 1 to recover the cost of responding to motor vehicle accidents.

Firefighters believe doing so will decrease the financial burden on taxpayers for equipment upgrades because departments will be less dependent on funding increases from the board of supervisors.

County appropriations will remain the most important funding source for the all-volunteer departments, however. But now the departments can’t be chided for ignoring a way to recover these expenses.

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“I think the biggest thing the citizens need to know is they will not be personally billed for any of this,” Darlington Heights Volunteer Fire Department Chief Dallas Tinsley told The Herald during a Friday interview.

The insurance company of the motorist responsible for the accident will receive the bill from a billing company contracted to handle those transactions for a percentage-based fee.

The Darlington Heights, Hampden-Sydney, Meherrin, Pamplin, Prospect and Rice departments have all decided to participate in the program, which has become increasingly popular across the nation and the state.

Farmville’s town council, meanwhile, has endorsed the Farmville Fire Department’s decision not to participate, while the Rice department will include structure fires in its billing plan.

Some key points:

If the accident wasn’t your fault, your insurance company will not be billed.

“If it’s two cars (a two-car accident), only the vehicle that caused the accident is billed. So if the accident is not your fault your insurance company’s not going to be billed. It’s just the ones that are deemed at fault,” stressed Tinsley, who was designated by the Prince Edward Area Firefighters Association to be its spokesperson on the issue.

If the accident was your fault but your insurance company refuses to pay, you will not be billed.

“We never would pursue the individual to get that payment,” Tinsley stated.

If you don’t have insurance and the accident is your fault, you still won’t be billed.

“If the people don’t have insurance, then there’s really no way we can bill for that because there’s no insurance company to bill,” he reasoned. “And if they have an accident and don’t have insurance, they’re in big enough trouble anyway. They don’t need somebody coming after them for more money.”

And if the accident is so minor that no insurance claim is made, there will be no bill.

“If it’s questionable, if it’s not what we would call an insurable accident, where the people are not going to turn it into the insurance company, then we would not bill,” the fire chief said.

In addition to providing an alternative to solely County appropriations, a large percentage of the cost recovery revenue will come from motorists who don’t live in Prince Edward County but would otherwise benefit from county firefighters without helping to support them.

Now, the ones at fault will see their insurance company pay.

Major highway arteries such as US 460 and US 15 have a higher percentage of out of town drivers but even rural back roads are heavily traveled by non-county residents, Tinsley pointed out.

According to the Darlington Heights fire chief, 60 percent of the department’s calls are to respond to motor vehicle accidents and he estimates 85 percent of them involve motorists who do not live in Prince Edward County.

Many Charlotte County residents drive through the department’s coverage area, for example, and the presence of Hampden-Sydney College sees a flow of traffic between H-SC and women’s colleges west of the county.

The decision by the participating fire departments to begin cost recovery wasn’t an overnight reaction. The firefighters association has been mulling the idea for nearly a year and heard a presentation by South Hill’s fire chief in May. The association’s system is based on the South Hill model.

“It was brought to our attention that we’ve had this ability for three or four years now and more and more fire departments are getting on line with it as a source of income to replace equipment and stuff,” explained Tinsley.

“Every year we go to the board of supervisors trying to get more money so that we can keep equipment updated…That way it’s a tax burden on the citizens,” Tinsley said.

Billing the insurance company of motorists responsible for accidents will provide a new revenue stream that isn’t taxpayer-dependent and most insurance policies contain coverage for such emergency responder cost recovery bills.

“It shouldn’t make any difference as far as the individual’s insurance bill because it’s already figured in,” he reiterated.

“Basically, it’s a way for us to raise money without putting the burden on the taxpayers. This way the insurance companies are paying for it,” Tinsley pointed out.

And, no, he said, motorists deemed not at fault for the accident should see no impact at all on their insurance premium.

“It shouldn’t cause any insurance rates to go up because it would only be charged to the people that are going to have to have an insurance claim anyway. So if their insurance rates go up they were already going up because of the accident, themselves,” Tinsley said.

The Prince Edward County board of supervisors adopted a resolution in November endorsing the association’s decision to begin the billing program.

But the decision was entirely made by the association and its member departments, stressed Prince Edward County Administrator Wade Bartlett.

“The County does not run the fire departments,” he said. “They are separate entities unto themselves. This is a decision by the fire association…All the County did was adopt this resolution of support.”

The fire departments will be using a national standard fee for the different services that might need to be provided.

“The insurance companies aren’t obligated to pay except what that standard is,” Tinsley noted, “so we decided to bill for that standard.”

The basic fee is approximately $400, but can rise if, for example, a place needs to be cleared for a helicopter to land and take off or a vehicle needs to be cut in half to free accident victims. The more it costs the fire departments, in other words, the more it’s going to cost the insurance companies, within those national fee standards.

Tinsley, meanwhile, understands Farmville’s decision not to participate. That department’s need is not so great as the six rural departments.

“They’ve got a lot more support than the county fire departments do, the different revenues and all of that,” he said.

Town council discussed the issue during its January monthly meeting last week.

Town Manager Gerald Spates noted that Farmville Fire Chief Andrew Goss made it clear the department doesn’t want to participate.

Spates told council members that the department believes it needs “to provide the service to the citizens and not to charge for the service. They feel they’re not a business, they’re a service organization. So they’re not in favor of charging for it unless council wishes to do so.”

Council member Donald L. Hunter, who is town council’s liaison representative with the department, said firefighters had “a long discussion…And I can understand why they don’t want to charge…You’re at a scene to save someone but then you end up charging them what you’re there for and it’s just not a good feeling. It didn’t go over well with any members of the fire department.”

Spates said, however, he can understand the Prince Edward departments’ decision.

“I think that’s where the whole issue came up—the lack of funding,” he said. “A lot of other departments do it but we just feel that in Farmville we don’t need to do it.”

But the Town hasn’t ruled out doing so in the future, if the additional funding stream becomes necessary for its own department.

“Oh, yeah, you could change it any time you wanted to,” Spates replied to council member Dan Dwyer, who wondered about the feasibility of reconsidering the subject, if it became necessary, in the future.

That future is now for six Prince Edward County volunteer fire departments.