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Volunteer firefighters pushing to recover cost of ambulance service

It can cost $150,000 or more for a new ambulance, and another $20,000 to equip it, not to mention the cost of gas and maintenance – yet volunteer fire companies cannot bill insurance companies for the cost of transporting a patient.

But there is a bill in the state Legislature that would allow fire departments and fire districts to recover the costs for providing ambulance service from insurers as well as from Medicare and Medicaid.

"New York State is the only state in the country where volunteer fire companies can't bill," said Robin Schott, chairman of the legislative committee of the Firemen's Association of the State of New York.

He briefed members of the Western New York region of during the group's quarterly meeting Sunday afternoon in the North Collins Fire Hall.

"With the increase of the calls that we're having on EMS, it's a drain on the manpower," Schott said. "If volunteer fire companies could bill, then they could actually pay someone to man it during the day hours."

Some volunteer fire companies have separated their emergency medical service operation, creating separate ambulance squads which are allowed to bill a third party for the cost. But fire companies that provide EMS must raise the funds through other avenues.

Also attending Sunday's session was Assemblyman David DiPietro, R-East Aurora, and a representative of Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma. DiPietro urged firefighters to contact their legislators, the sponsors of legislation they are supporting and the chairmen of the committees considering the bills. He said a lot of bills that are not approved in the budget process – which ended last week – get stuck in committee.

"Don't just write them, call them. Tell them you want it out before June," DiPietro said. "A lot of times with some of these bills,  they just won't push them because they don't hear from enough people, so they don't think it's that important."

He said he is hopeful the legislation can be passed before the Legislature breaks for the summer.

Schott said EMS calls make up about 90 percent of the calls for a volunteer fire company, but the investment is too much for some departments.

"Fire departments across the state are facing an affordability crisis. Providing emergency medical services is a core mission for many departments but requires a significant investment in time, training, equipment and personnel," Schott said.

As an example of the value volunteer fire companies provide, he said it would cost about $3.8 billion a year to switch from the volunteer to an all-paid system.

Other legislation the group wants to see enacted would prohibit the sale and distribution of new upholstered furniture containing certain flame retardant chemicals because of those chemicals' toxicity, establish the crime of endangering the welfare of fire and emergency personnel when a property owner makes an illegal conversion to a multifamily unit without the proper permits, and a Lemon Law for fire apparatus.

The association also would like to see a sales tax exemption for home safety items such as smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms and fire extinguishers during October, which is Fire Prevention Month.

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