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Rescue can come with a bill in Hall County
As firefighters roles change, officials look to recoup additional costs of service
A injured driver is loaded into a Hall County Fire Services ambulance Fridaay afternoon following a wreck on Thompson Bridge Road. Hall County Fire is now charging motorists for its services when involved in a car accident.

Hall County Fire

Top incidents responded to between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31

• Car accidents, EMS response, search and rescue: 76.55 percent of calls (12,080 incidents)

• Good intent calls (ex: dispatched and canceled in route): 11.94 percent (1,884 incidents)

• General service calls (ex: animal rescue, assisting the elderly): 5.45 percent (860 incidents)

• False alarms: 2.26 percent (357 incidents)

• Fires: 2.26 percent (357 incidents)

Fire Recovery USA-Hall County Fire partnership

Average special operations charges

Motor vehicle incidents

• Level 1: $435, hazardous materials assessment and scene stabilization

• Level 2: $495, additional cleanup support

• Level 3: $605, car fire

Add-on services

• Extrication: $1,305

Additional time-on-scene charges

• Engine billed at $400 an hour

• Truck billed at $500 per hour

• Miscellaneous equipment billed at $300 per hour

• Hazardous materials charges between $700 and $5,900

EMS billing and collection

• Fire Recovery USA takes a 5.75 percent cut of all payments collected in the first year

The life of a firefighter just isn’t what it used to be. In fact, the childhood dream of so many boys and girls is a bit of a misnomer these days.

After all, firefighting is just a small fraction of the job description. More stringent fire codes and improvements in building safety have led to a decrease in blazes over the years.

Across the nation, firefighters are now routinely trained as first responders, paramedics and emergency medical technicians. They are called to the scene of car accidents and home emergency calls. They conduct search-and-rescue operations, and hazardous materials cleanup.

These services are expensive, however, and local governments are looking to find ways to recoup the cost.

“It’s kind of a trend across the nation with the economy being the way it’s been,” Hall County Fire Chief Jeff Hood said.

But as one Hall County family recently discovered, the bill for these services isn’t cheap.

A Hall County resident recently wrote to The Times surprised to see her daughter receive a collection notice from Fire Recovery USA after she was involved in a single-car accident with no injuries.

The resident thought the notice was a scam at first. She then began to wonder why county taxpayers aren’t exempt from these charges.

The resident said she was informed nothing would be owed unless the insurance company provided specific coverage for certain charges.

Fires just a fraction of responses

In Hall County, fires accounted for just 2.26 percent of all calls for service and response in the first eight months of 2015. There were 357 total blazes, from building fires to brush fires.

“Traditional fire service used to just run fire calls,” Hood said. “It’s a small percentage of what we do anymore.”

Emergency medical and rescue operations, meanwhile, accounted for about 77 percent of all responses, totaling more than 12,000 calls for service between January and the end of August.

EMS calls alone accounted for a full 68 percent of these incidents, with 7 percent directed to vehicle accidents.

There were 686 accidents with reported injuries, and 488 with no injuries.

“Those types of things are very expensive to have those resources available,” Hood said.

Hall County first contracted with Fire Recovery USA last November to provide billing and collection for special operations such as hazmat response and car accident assistance.

The county then expanded that contract last week to include EMS billing and collection.

“In today’s environment, EMS billing is quite complicated,” Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton said. “Extensive coding is required when handling EMS billing (for Medicare and Medicaid payments). Fire Recovery USA will ensure compliance with rapidly changing federal requirements in conjunction with medical service provisions.”

Fire Recovery contracts with 16 other cities and counties in the state. It bills car insurance companies on behalf of Hall Fire, taking a cut of payments received.

Many insurance policies have specific coverage related to fire department reimbursements.

To date, Fire Recovery has submitted 348 claims, totaling more than $147,000, to insurance companies on behalf of Hall County.

Of that number, just 81 claims have been paid, totaling close to $40,000. Fifty-five claims have been denied, totaling more than $22,000.

Finally, 188 claims are in the process of trying to be collected, and 24 claims are nonbillable.

Alternative is higher taxes, officials say

County officials said the increased demand for specialized services firefighters now provide, coupled with cross-training and certification costs, has prompted the need for an alternative funding arm.

“The only other alternative is going up with taxes ... and that’s what really generated this conversation,” Hood said. “All costs recovered are a direct benefit to the taxpayer.”

The new responsibilities firefighters now undertake presents additional challenges and concerns beyond the fiscal scope of recouping up-front costs.

Hood said he is concerned that all the duties firefighters are now required to perform could stretch the force too thin. For example, EMS equipment has been added to all firefighting apparatuses.

So Hall Fire is introducing a new EMS service delivery model to help reduce costs and ensure enough resources are available at all times. That means using quick-response vehicles and ambulances for medical emergencies, and preserving firefighting equipment and personnel for that specific service.

The department will benefit in the coming years from special purpose local option sales tax revenue directed to the purchase of new ambulances.

“We want to put the proper resources on appropriate calls,” Hood said.