CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - A Bloomingdale family who lost everything when their home caught on fire while they were on vacation says Southside Fire Department billed them for $15,000.
Charging for emergency response services is trending in some fire departments around the state, sort of like a user fee that comes from a third-party collection agency. But in a WTOC Investigation, we found that some residents may not have to pay this bill.
In the early morning hours of July 8, firefighters attempted to contain a house fire on Old River Road. No one was home when it started.
Homeowner Blanche Eden Gnann says they were headed to Florida for vacation when she got the news.
"When I opened the text – it was just a picture and it showed the back of the house fully-engulfed in flames," Gnann said.
By the time they made it home, first responders had come and gone.
Despite losing everything, Southside Fire billed her for $15,000. It was sent from a third-party collection agency, Fire Recovery USA.
Her insurance company was only willing to pay $500.
"I immediately got a call and they wanted to know how I was going to handle the difference of $14,500," Gnann said.
It wasn't long after we started our investigation that Southside Fire said it was all a mistake.
According to the state fire commissioner's office, steep bills like this from Fire Recovery USA is not uncommon. In fact, we found this is trending among agencies around the state.
But if you get one of these bills, you may not necessarily have to pay it. State officials say you should first contact your city or county administrator.
Regardless of whether residents pay a fire fee or subscribe to fire services, state officials say fire protection is often covered in premium tax that your insurance company pays to the state of Georgia.
The state then cuts a check to each municipality, including Chatham County, which got more than $5 million last year.
According to the state, it's up to the county to disperse the money. But Southside officials say they've never gotten a dime from Chatham County – even though it's the only fire department serving more than 20,000 residents in unincorporated Chatham County.
Since they don't receive any kind of public funds, they are solely relying on subscriptions and third-party collection agencies to make ends meet.
For Blanche, not having to pay is certainly a small victory after everything she has gone through.
"I didn't set the fire. I didn't call the fire department and I've lost everything," Gnann said.
But the bigger concern now is Chatham County residents who live in the unincorporated area are paying an insurance premium tax to the state, but they may not be getting a return when it comes to fire protection.
"You know, I assumed that I was protected from the county and from paying my taxes," Gnann said.
Chatham County officials confirmed that Southside Fire did not receive any money from the $5 million they received from the state premium tax.