Mass. fire program cost-recovery plan falls short of estimate

'Program has been difficult to implement,' says fire chief


By Jack Encarnacao
The Patriot Ledger

QUINCY, Mass. — A fire department program designed to bring in a quarter of a million dollars by billing insurance companies for the cost of responding to car crashes has only netted $2,700 halfway through the fiscal year.

Fire Chief Joseph Barron told the city council Monday that the program has faced resistance — from insurance companies that have scoffed at paying what they call a "crash tax," and from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which is refusing to disclose drivers' insurance information.

"The cost-recovery program has been difficult to implement," Barron said. "It really has not gone as projected. We just seem to be getting pushback in every aspect of this."

The city hired a California company called Fire Recovery USA to collect money from the insurance companies of parties deemed responsible for accidents.

The program was approved by the city council in August in hopes of propping up the fire department's personnel budget and preventing layoffs. It was predicted to generate $250,000 annually.

In addition to the $2,700 collected to date, claims totaling $14,000 are in different stages of being processed, Barron said. City Councilor Douglas Gutro called the returns "anemic."

The insurance industry has opposed such programs across the country, branding them money grabs.

The Quincy program is aimed at recovering costs the fire department incurs when it responds to car crashes and other emergencies in which someone acted negligently, recklessly or maliciously — pulling a fire alarm when there is no emergency, for example.

Fees range from $200 per hour for use of a command vehicle to $600 per hour for use of heavy rescue equipment.

Barron said Fire Recovery USA, which collects 20 percent of each insurance-claim payment as compensation, has had trouble getting driver information from the Registry.

The city expects to see enough new revenue this year to cover the $250,000 hole, so the fire department will not be required to cut its budget.

The fire department has applied for a $1.5 million federal grant that would allow it to restore nine positions it has eliminated or is in danger of losing. Four existing firefighter jobs are paid for with a federal stimulus grant that will expire at the end of the year. Five firefighters were laid off in July.

Barron said he does not want to abandon the insurance-claims program, but he would prefer that it be used to pay for new equipment rather than firefighter salaries.

"I still feel it's worth continuing to pursue," he said.

The department is under strain: Because of low staffing, it sometimes has to take an engine and ladder truck in Wollaston and an engine in Germantown out of service.

Retirements and injuries have forced the department to dip into its overtime budget to cover vacancies. The department has spent 54 percent of its $700,000 overtime budget since the fiscal year began July 1.

Barron said eight officers — captains and lieutenants — were out injured in the past month.

"These injuries are legitimate, and they're entirely unexpected and extremely out of the ordinary," the chief said. "In my experience, we might have three officers out injured at any one time."

Copyright 2010 The Patriot Ledger

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