Fee or tax: Debate on fire service funding continues

It will come down to local and state authorities to decide which model they choose to follow to provide fire and EMS

There's no getting around the fact that providing fire and emergency services costs money, just like any other service we expect from a public or private entity. Career or volunteer, urban or rural, fire departments need to purchase vehicles and equipment; pay for the fire stations in which they are housed; provide training to firefighters and EMS personnel; and in career or on-call departments, cover salary and benefit costs.

As this story, and others on FireRescue1 over the past few years, demonstrates, the lasting impact of the great recession can be seen in the continued public policy debates about how fire protection is funded at the state and local levels of government. In economic terms, the contrast is between treating fire protection as a "public" versus a "private" good.

We're all familiar with private goods, such as a new computer that you buy using your own money to place in your home for the exclusive use of your family.

Perhaps a better example is a swimming pool that you pay to have built in your yard for the exclusive use of your family and invited friends. While the pool might be accessible to your neighbors, everyone (hopefully) understands that it's your pool, with all the attendant legal property rights and responsibilities.

In the United States, we generally think of fire and emergency services as a public good that is funded by everyone in a particular area, for the good of everyone in that area. Using the swimming pool analogy again, this is the community pool that is built and operated using fees assessed on each property in the neighborhood; everyone pays for the pool, and everyone gets to use it.

Fire protection, however, isn't always treated that way.

Some jurisdictions operate on a fee-for-service or "pay to spray" model. Others charge for some services — such as ambulance transport, vehicle extrication, or fire protection system inspections, to name a few — but not for structural and wildland firefighting. Believe it or not, there are even communities without any organized fire protection services available to respond!

Ultimately, in our U.S. system of governance, the way fire and emergency services are provided, and funded, rests with state and local policymakers. Fire departments, fire chiefs and organizations representing career and volunteer firefighters are certainly key stakeholders in what we can expect to be an ongoing national dialogue about how (and at what cost) local communities protect their residents, businesses, and visitors from fires and other hazards.

Stay safe!

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