Sunday, November 10, 2013

Surprise, Surprise in Surprise, Arizona as Rural/Metro Bills for Watching a House Burn Down

The Purcells returned home as Rural/Metro firefighters were putting out hot spots where their house had been a short time earlier. Neighbors and the firefighters had watched the house burn down. Rural/Metro sent the Purcells a $19,825 itemized bill two weeks later for their failed effort to save the house. The Purcells are shocked. Rural/Metro is charging almost $20,000 for their failure. It may be of legal significance, depending on the laws of Arizona, that the Purcells never requested assistance from Rural/Metro. In other words, Rural/Metro is charging for services that were neither requested nor performed. The Purcells house was at 163th Ave. and Dixileta in an unincorporated area of Surprise, Arizona. Neither they nor their neighbors knew the area was also outside the fire fighting territory of the Surprise Fire Department. Volunteer fire fighting districts are common in rural areas, but Rural/Metro Fire Department fills the void in many areas in 21 states. The company provides ambulance and fire fighting services, often on a contractual basis for commercial accounts. Even metropolitan fire departments often charge for emergency ambulance services today, Scores of smaller communities in Texas will charge the fire insurance company a “fire service cost recovery” fee for fighting the fire at an insured residence. The general expectation though is that fire fighting is covered by property taxes. That’s what the Purcells and their neighbors thought. Their property taxes include a “fire district assistance tax,” which they reasonable thought covered fire protection. It turns out to be a county-wide tax intended to help volunteer fire departments. Rural/Metro lets many rural resident pay an annual subscriber’s fee of roughly $500 to cover fire fighting, but the fine print provides “Reaction times may vary.” The nearest Rural/metro fire station is about 20 miles from the Purcells community. The options therefore for rural Americans in the Purcell situation are 1) Pay the subscriber fee, but with no certainty of a timely response; 2) Pay a large bil if the for-profit company arrives to fight the fire, or 3) attempt to form a volunteer fire fighting organization. The South Fulton Fire Department in rural Obion County, Tennessee refused in 2010 to fight a fire at a house whose owner had forgotten to pay the annual $75 fee. They arrived at the house, parked the fire engine, and watched the house burn down. They similarly acted a year later when the owner of another house hadn’t paid the fee because she never thought her house would catch on fire. Let me add that Rural/Metro filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on August 4, 2013 with $735 million in debt.

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