Justin Purcell and his family were out of their home in Surprise, Arizona when flames engulfed it in August. As reported by KSAZ Fox 10, by the time Justin arrived home with his family the firefighters were losing the battle to save the home. The cause of the fire was unknown. Justin told the station, "It's definitely a shocker when you come back and your house is gone." But Justin was in for another shock when two weeks later he received a bill from Rural Metro Fire Department, a private department, charging him $19,825 for their services in his unincorporated area that has no fire coverage. "Definitely was a surprise. It was a shocker when we got that," said Justin.
Justin reviewed the itemized bill and it listed a charge of $1,500/truck per hour and a significant cost for the three firefighters in each of the two trucks on the scene. "They were paying the firefighters $150 an hour and there were several of them," said Justin. Colin Williams, public information officer for Rural Metro defends the charges saying the rates are fair adding, "Those numbers are set based on 65 years on tradition buying equipment, training, operating a fire service." The family’s home insurance does not cover the charges.
Colin explained Rural Metro’s role in this fire saying, “In this case, [Surprise] firefighters responded. They did receive mutual aid from other departments. Once the fire is knocked down and brought under control, Rural Metro units then provide the overhaul and do essentially the mop up, if you will. So that takes a significant amount of time and a significant amount of resources." When KSAZ asked to see documentation about what the mutual aid agreement entailed, they were told by Colin, “We do have what I call a gentleman's agreement" and there was nothing in writing.
Surprise firefighters arrived at the house within 13 minutes and it took Rural Metro 24 minutes to arrive after the call. The closest firehouse is 20 miles away. Assessing the situation, neighbor Brian Repp said, "They got here late and his house is totally gone. OK. Then they're going to charge him $20,000 and they let his house go. I don't think that's right at all." Before the incident area residents thought they had fire coverage because they were paying a “fire district assistance tax.” But it turns out that that is a countywide tax that funds volunteer fire districts.
Arizona State Senator Chester Crandell admitted that fire coverage in Arizona’s rural areas is a mess, “Having county islands that have no service in, in uh, fireboards that are just packing up and leaving, going bankrupt… It's certainly something that needs to be addressed.” But until that time, residents of this unincorporated area have few options: Buy a yearly $500 subscription from Rural Metro for fire coverage, take the gamble of getting a bill if they have a house fire, or form their own fire district which could take months.
The Purcells have another place to stay for the time being they’re grateful to be safe especially with a newborn baby, but they have no idea where they will get the money to pay Rural Metro’s bill. Justin said, “If it was reasonable, and I don’t know what reasonable is on the amount of putting out the fire, but $20,000 you know to do a mop up on the fire is just ridiculous. I can’t believe it.”
More info: KSAZ