I was listening on Midlands Today this morning to an interview with a poor man who has received a huge bill from Laois County Council. Back in July last year he was returning home to Portlaoise from working a night shift in a homeless centre in Dublin when smoke started coming out of the cooling vents in his car. He did what any of us would in the circumstances; pulled over onto the hard shoulder, took out his mobile phone and called the emergency services.
As the fire took hold a couple of trucks pulled up and the drivers attempted to tackle the blaze with fire extinguishers from their cabs. The blaze was too severe. By the time the fire brigade arrived half an hour after the call the car was destroyed. A few weeks later the man was shocked to receive a bill from the County Council for €3.5k. After he had contested the amount it was reduced to a little over €3k. His insurance company will contribute €1k leaving the man with €2k to find.
In my previous post I discussed the forthcoming Household Charge and noted that whereas most services provided by local councils in the UK are free of charge with a proportion of the cost raised via a locally determined tax called the Council Tax, here in Ireland most services are either funded centrally by the state government or charged for. This incident illustrates precisely what is wrong with that system. Local councils are free to charge whatever they deem to be appropriate for a fire service call-out. In the case of Laois County Council the charge is based on the number of men attending and the length of time that elapses between receipt of the call and the return of the men to their respective stations. The charge is doubled for calls received between midnight and 7am.
Nineteen Men to Extinguish a Car Fire
On this occasion two fire tenders turned out from two different stations involving a total of 19 men. I have no idea to what extend that level of turn-out was determined by the firemen's terms of service but it is well known that public service workers in Ireland are grossly over-indulged; it's one of the reasons the country is bankrupt. Leaving that aside, however, the iniquity of having to pay for a service when you have absolutely no control over the cost of providing that service and no alternative is obvious.
At this point it is worth looking back at the history of fire services. Long before they were taken over by local authorities they were provided by insurance companies. You paid an annual premium to the company and in return they came and put out any fire that occurred on your premises. It was fair because the company published statistics about the number of fires attended together with an account of income and expenditure. Prospective clients could judge whether the proposed premium matched the cost of the service and whether or not it was worth paying on the basis that if they didn't pay up front they would not get the service should they ever be unfortunate enough to need it.
Where the service is provided as part of a package funded by local taxes the general point remains true. The local councils in the UK publish annual accounts showing the actual cost of running the service in order to justify the level of tax being levied. In Ireland there is no such requirement. So the council, no doubt aided and abetted by the fire-fighters, can determine how many men to send to an incident and what to charge. Moreover, where such arbitrary charges are met from the vehicle owner's insurance it has the inevitable effect of pushing up premiums for everyone.
The remedy, at least for car owners, is to have a fire extinguisher and use it should the need arise. Whatever you do, don't call the fire brigade!