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User fees for fire and EMS a public-policy decision

Regardless of the funding model, it is important to educate the public on the cost of emergency response

Editor's Note: Chief Adam K. Thiel looks at the fees as a funding mechanism.

User fees are nothing new for local governments. Water and sewer, public parking, permitting and plans review, parks and recreation activities, and many other municipal services are often (one might even say "usually," although there are many different combinations or models in-place across the United States) funded by charging fees to those who use the services. 

And yes, some local jurisdictions charge fees for providing fire and emergency services; in some cases these fees are restricted to specialized operations such as hazardous materials or technical rescue response, but some municipalities levy fees for what we might consider basic fire and EMS coverage.

When local governments that haven't done so in the past, and sometimes when fires unfortunately occur to people who didn't pay the existing fees (remember the incidents in Tennessee over the past couple years), consider charging for fire and EMS responses it invariably stirs a lot of emotion within the fire department, partner agencies, and in the broader community.

Keep in mind that most residents have little inherent knowledge about how their fire department operates, and even less awareness about how much it actually costs to provide all-hazards emergency services. Try it yourself: ask someone who's not in the fire service what a new engine/pumper costs and watch their jaw drop when you tell them the correct answer. But everyone expects the services and they have to get paid for somehow.

If property taxes, sales taxes, and other revenue sources aren't enough, there isn't much left to consider beyond fees or subscriptions. And actually, in economic terms, there's an argument to be made for charging fees to those who consume municipal services at a higher level than others.

Ultimately, however, public policy decisions about the range and scope of services provided by local governments, including fire and EMS, rest with the citizens and elected officials who represent them. As the dialogue between policymakers and their constituents becomes ever more difficult during the economic recovery, it's important that we all understand what it costs to provide our services, and work to honestly educate the public we serve so they can make informed choices about what they want to pay for, and how.

Stay safe!

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