Huge differences revealed in fees for fire callouts
HOUSEHOLDERS in some counties are paying more than €350 for fire brigade callout services which are free in other areas.
There are big variations in fire-service charges for homes and road-traffic accidents nationwide, an Irish Independent survey has found.
The councils of Cork city and county, Waterford city and Dublin -- which runs the country's largest fire service with 12 stations -- provide a free service when a fire tender is called to a private home.
In contrast, North Tipperary Council charges householders a €366 fee for domestic callouts, while in south Tipperary the fee is €150.
Major differences have also emerged in charges to victims for fire brigade callouts to road- traffic collisions, ranging from zero (Dublin, Cork county) to €720 per hour in Meath.
Other minimum fees, which cover common chimney fires, range from €80 in Roscommon to €300 charged by Limerick County Council.
All chimney-fire charges obtained were set fees, except for Louth County Council, which bills €450 per hour for the job.
"I would like to see the possibility of some standardisation of prices or at least some reasonableness by councils," Dermott Jewell of the Consumers' Association of Ireland said yesterday.
"It would help, although the councils would probably come out and say that you're not comparing like with like."
Several local authorities base their road-traffic collision fees on actual costs, which include firefighters' wages and expenses for fuel, equipment, vehicles and other crew costs.
In all incidents, the fees are charged to the property owner or person involved in the crash.
Yesterday a spokesman for Wexford's fire authority said the county's latest high rates were introduced in January 2009, with all domestic fire callouts free in previous years.
"The councillors signed off on these rates as one of their specific tasks -- and then they're the ones to complain about how someone can't pay them," he said.
A member of Louth's fire service said the county's high charges were down to the excessive costs of maintaining stations in an area needing full-time firefighting staff.
"We look at what it would cost the council (when we decide what to charge for the service)," he said. "The amount we charge is still less than the cost of the service for us.
He added that because of the county's "medium" population size, busier stations would be able to recoup their costs over a larger base of residents, meaning they could keep fees down.
The contentious rates have caused uproar in local authority meetings around the country, where many councillors have argued the costs may turn people off calling the vital services in an emergency situation.
"You'll get quite a few cases where people would be charged around €1,400 for the fire brigade," Donegal Sinn Fein councillor Thomas Pringle said.
Meanwhile, in a meeting of Carlow County Council last week, councillors heard of a local woman who was billed €717 after her burnt-out car on the roadside was towed away by the local brigade.
Insurance companies FBD and Allianz cover the fees as standard on their home-cover policies up to a maximum of €2,000, while Zurich's also does so with a limit of €1,500.
However, Mr Pringle argues it is often weeks after an insurance company has already paid out on the incident before a household is billed by the council. A spokesman for the Department of Local Government said the major fee discrepancies were "entirely a matter for the local authorities themselves".
In all callouts, charges are waived on incidents involving a fatality, while waivers can also apply if the billed person is a pensioner or on social welfare payments.
One of the country's chief fire officers last night said his station regularly got "earfuls" of complaints from people telling them they could not pay the high prices they are billed.
He added that his county's fire authority made "about one 15th of our overall costs back from the charges".