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Homeowner whose house burned down gets $20,000 bill from Rural Metro. A subscription controversy from Arizona.

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This contoversy over a subcription fire department in Surprise, Arizona gets a little complicated. It involves Rural Metro, a for profit company that has filed for bankruptcy. It occurred in an area that is more than 20 miles from Rural Metro’s closest fire station. Rural Metro was also the second fire company to arrive to the fire in an area where there is no written mutual aid agreement. It’s also a location where, according to KSAZ-TV, Rural Metro only recently began marketing its subscription service.

A state senator told the TV station fire service coverage in rural areas of Arizona is a mess and has called for oversight.

Rural Metro charged $1500 for each of the two fire engines it provided and $150 per hour for each of the firefighters.

I urge you to watch the video above and read the entire article from Jill Monier at KSAZ-TV about the fire that destroyed Justin Purcell’s home. Here’s an excerpt:

The bill shows one truck stayed on scene for six hours, a second truck was there for four. Each truck included three firefighters.

“Those numbers are set based on 65 years on tradition buying equipment, training, operating a fire service,” said Colin Williams, public information officer for Rural Metro.

“In this case, firefighters responded, they did receive mutual aid from other departments.. once fire is knocked down and brought under control, Rural Metro units provide the overhaul and do essentially the mop up, if you will — that takes a significant amount of time and resources,” explained Williams. 

Surprise firefighters were on the scene within 13 minutes. It took Rural Metro 24 minutes to get there. 

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AZ Surprise Rural Metro fire 2


Comments - Add Yours

  • david davis

    This is crazy. My department is a county fire corporation funded by dues. We go to all fires, members or not. If we go to a non member fire, we charge $350.00 for response and first hour, $100.00 for each additional hour. If we respond mutual aid for another department, we do not charge.

  • Brian Haggerty

    This kind of stupidity is the fault and failure of local government. Not putting in place proper fire services to protect lives is ridiculous. How can you give an excuse to this. Sorry, you don’t have a fire department that can respond in a reasonable time. I don’t say you cannot have a private company, but not having a station closer to your area than the department that perform mutual aid makes no sense. I don’t care if you pay for it in taxes or a yearly fee, but the department servicing your community should be a reasonable distance. And that 20K bill. Yeah right guys, go ahead and try to collect that one….

  • RJ (in florida)

    While I personally do not believe in subscription fire departments I do understand that their existence is approved and accepted by some homeowners or communities that say “i’m not going to pay the tax and if my home burns down, that’s why I have fire insurance”. But to make a media story out of it without all of the facts that usually center on the homeowner not having an agreement with the subscription FD should be the question. I don’t like R-M but I hope they are smart enough to have some kind of documentation that shows that the homeowner in this case refused the service. This kind of story makes all of us look bad in my opinion. The homeowner rolled the dice and crapped out and now its time to pay up

    • olorinstaff

      Why would any insurance company cover a home that is not serviced by a well trained and local fire department?

      • Mark too

        Simple, because they can make money doing so.

        These areas tend to have a low occurrence of fires. They are likely charged a significantly higher premium for coverage in these locations than they would be in a location with adequate fire protection.

        Let’s say you have 500 houses in that area and each is paying $1000 per year for insurance. That’s $500,000. If the average home value is $200,000 and the area averages 1 significant fire per year, then the insurer stands to make a nice profit each year depending on what they pay out in non fire related claims each year.

      • RJ in florida

        olorinstaff: because insurance companies like the mob are about money coming in not going out. agents get commissions for selling and if your property happens to be in the middle of nowhere, as long as you pay the premiums, they don’t care because when its time to pay out, they hand it to their SIU to find out what the cause was and if it was something that was “iffy” they wont pay. the effectiveness or distance away of the FD will be a small matter as long as they wont have to pay

    • LT

      RJ I live in AZ in a Rural Metro Fire District. They charge a subscription based on the size of your home, so I pay upwards of $2000 a YEAR for their service. They have a station right inside my community and it still took them 10 minutes to arrive at my neighbors house. Even when we pay our yearly subscription they still charge you when they respond. Per mile charge, each unit charge and supply charge!

      • SmartFireGuy

        That is ambulance mileage smart guy….AZ state law mandates ambulances charge for transports. Do your homework.

    • Anonymous

      Check your fire insurance policy and i bet it does not cover fire response if you do not either have a subscription or pay taxes for fire coverage. I am sure it coversthe structure and the contents but does not cover fire trucks or fire personnel.

  • Anonymous

    That fee is absurd, but to me the last comment on the video is perhaps the most shocking – that Rural/Metro does not give people the option to simply let their home burn.

    So let me get this straight…they think that someone who isn’t paying them a subscription fee or has any relationship with them, lives 20 miles from the firehouse (so nothing is going to be salvageable anyway) doesn’t have the right to refuse their service on private property in an unincorporated area? Umm….

    • Mark too

      I would tend to agree that the size of the bill seems absurd however, not allowing the home to just burn is not that “shocking” if you think about it in the right context.

      Let’s say a house is not “covered” by a subscription and the FD shows up and is met by somebody claiming to be the homeowner and telling them he doesn’t want them to do anything. The FD lets the house burn down.

      What happens if it’s discovered that the homeowner was upside down in his mortgage and behind on payments? Was the fire truly accidental or could it be intentional in order to get out of a bad financial situation?

      What happens if a body (or the charred remains of one) is discovered after the fire? Was it really the homeowner that said to let it burn or could it have been somebody trying to cover up a crime by destroying all the evidence?

      What if it was simply just a run of the mill arson job “just for kicks”?

  • Roger

    its, not it’s

    • dave statter

      But if you were really that good as a copy editor Roger you would have also noticed I misspelled the very next word, leaving out the “c” in “subscription”. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Didn’t anybody in the local government think gee what happens if we have a fire or other emergency. The closest firehouse is 20 miles away, how close are the cops or an ambulance.

  • Mark too

    Not really something for the FD to take into consideration, but something to ponder about the “let it burn” course of action……

    The insurance company probably already knows that the homes in these areas don’t really have actual fire protection services and the homeowner’s policies surely reflect that.

    What would be the insurance company’s position on the homeowner refusing to let the FD that was on scene put out the fire? Would they still pay to replace the entire house if it was determined that only a room or two was involved when the FD arrived?

    I just can’t imagine any insurance company would be down with just paying out $150K to replace the house when they could’ve paid $75K to repair it.

  • Scooter

    Booo Rural Metro… I guess they forgot what the fire service was founded on… and to respond 20 miles to a house that is a total loss, and not give them the option to let it burn, and then put out some hot spots and charge $20,000 including $150 per firefighter and $1,500 per rig! Wow the cops should be called for robbery! What a JOKE! Strike Da Box! K

  • ukfbbuff

    Gee Dave I forgot that not only is getting to be the “Holiday” Time of the year but….

    “Pay for Spray” season. Or least the time of year when one of these types of incidents occurs and you publicize it.

    I think RM is “Out of Pocket” in their claim and I hope it goes to court.

  • FirefighterBlack

    Don’t pay them. Make them take you to court. That bill is ridiculous. They’re nothing more than a maid service after the real firefighters have done the work.

  • Doug

    Here in Australia all fire and rescue services are provided by the state governments both paid and volunteer, I don’t understand the piecemeal way that US fire services seem to operate under outside the larger cities.

    • Anna

      Same here in the UK. And the Libertarians want this sort of ‘service’ for everyone’!?

      • mark

        Your understanding of libertarians is flawed. Libertarians are for limited gov’t, individual freedoms
        liberties and personal responsibility. Sure, there are some that are anarchists. Just as their are leftists who are communists.

        Anyways, gov’t’s first responsibility is protection–police, fire, EMS, military (defensive only).

        In Michigan, fire protection is the responsibility of townships or cities. They can have their own dept, contract with another department, contract with Rural Metro, or whatever.

        The real interesting part of this–gets back to politics–is that Michigan has the largest number of acres owned by the feds or state so no tax dollars are collected in those areas for fire protection. Those townships and even counties get screwed by their own gov’t.

    • FAO

      In the US, fire protection policy is determined by local government, whether its the city council, township boardman, county council or other similar civil government.

      Problem is, some of these local governments do not step up and ensure adequate service is provided. Then again, there are taxpayers that do not want to pay for fire protection.

      I used to be a member of a rural fire dept., that contracted with cities and townships, to provide fire protection for. No contract, no fire protection, no exceptions.

      You get what you pay for.

  • David

    Thats what happens when you disregard volunteers and you aren’t willing to pay for a paid dept. but settle for a subscription dept. Doesn’t seen any different than deciding not to pay for insurance of any kind and then needing and wanting to file a claim!…… It’s there own fault!

  • Anonymous

    What are the insurance premiums for these people that don’t have a county fire service…one of the first things that they look at is the fire department ISO Rating and adjust from that. I cant imagine paying for insurance on a home that has a 20 mile response for the first due engine.

    • Ryan

      Sorry, but ISO has been out of the picture for quite a few years now. State Farm hasn’t used them since 2001! They go more off of fire loss than ISO

  • Volunteer for life

    Start a fire district and set up a volly dept. An engine,engine tanker, and a resque or ladder if needed.. Better then rural metro and way cheaper then BIG CITY paid guys.

    • Former Chief

      That is easier said than done Volunteer. Having the residents agree to a referendum creating a Fire District and then having the County approve it for starters. Then there’s equipment acquisition, making sure you have an adequate number of volunteers and that pesky little thing called training and certification. It would appear you are anti “Big City paid guys”, as you put it. Unfortunately, after 38 years in the volunteer fire service, I am aware that there are too many volunteer agencies that are fire departments in name only. Sometimes, you get what you pay for.

      • Former Chief

        Oh, and one other thing Volunteer for life, both of my sons are “Big City paid guys” who started as volunteers. I resent your demeaning comment towards career firefighters.

    • professionalfirefighter

      and you get the same result as metro, guys showing up after the fact and spending a few hours to get their rocks off at a “fire”, picking through and spraying some smoldering wreckage. Then they can go to the bar in their t-shirts and talk about how they “fight what you fear” and “walk where the devil dances”

      • Former Chief

        pff, there are a lot of very good volunteer Fire Departments out there. I like to think that I was associated with one for 36 years. We weren’t perfect for sure, but we were proactive and aggressive with good response times. Sadly, in many instances, those things are changing in the volunteer fire service. Too often, volunteer emergency service agencies are just filling seats with warm bodies to remain in existence. The quality of services provided is suspect. And they fight any initiatives such as consolidation or transition to at least a partially career department tooth and nail.

  • Commenter44 – it is only 24 miles from downtown Phoenix to downtown Surprise – and that might be a 60 MPH road that connects them

  • LT

    Insurance premiums vary – I live in the SE valley (Phoenix)- Rural Metro is less than a mile from my home and my premium is 1200/yr for insurance and 2000/yr for rural metro. PLUS if and when rural metro responds, you will still receive a bill for mileage and supplies.

    When my neighbor had to go to the hospital 911 was called, Rural Metro and SW Ambulance arrived (mind you they fire subscription was paid) and they received a bill in the mail for just shy of $400. Why do we pay if they are going to charge us? That is why many communities are trying to establish their own fire districts.

  • realfireman

    This is exactly why private primary 911 services need to go away. a privately owned corporation with no oversight is completely a bunch of crap. I worked for RM up here in the Cleveland/Youngstown area and boy can I tell you is the way the run stuff a complete joke. Private EMS is a joke at best. Its nothing but an excuse to try to corner a market that people need. It should be a crime. The Fire Service is not a F@&king business!!! That comment that ass clown made really boiled my blood. Take your corporate bankrupt ass and shove it. Form your own fire district. Even a crew of volunteers beats the hell out of those wanna-bes. They show up and do the mop up after the REAL firefighters do the job. Same with their EMS lol excuse me taxi service. I wouldnt call them for a dead dog, or a dumpster fire. Good luck to those victims, not just of a fire, but of robbery from a bunch of crooks pretending to be firemen. I hope you guys form your own district you will see the benefits in time and muscle out those frauds.

  • agates1272

    “Those numbers are set based on 65 years on tradition buying equipment, training, operating a fire service,” said Colin Williams, public information officer for Rural Metro.

    Are you effing kidding me??? You’re going to use “tradition” to justify screwing people over with an absurd bill like that? Mr. Williams, you have NO CLUE what tradition is. Firefighting tradition has NEVER been about money…it’s been about providing a public service to your citizens. What a moron.

  • Chris

    There is a lot of misinformation in the news story. The homeowner was billed for the fire. Yes he does live in an unincorporated part of Maricopa County. Rural/Metro has responded to fire calls since 1948 and this problem arises every few years or so. Maricopa County is larger than 7 states. It has many areas where there is no close fire department. Rural/Metro builds its stations near population centers where there is no fire option and then sells a product. The individual homeowner can purchase it or not. The problem arises when homeowner A pays for services but homeowner B does not. Homeowner B gets a fire department response because his neighbor is paying for it. He gets a bill because someone paid to have the fire station manned and equipped. Likewise, often when Rural/Metro requests mutual aid, the municipality bills Rural/Metro. Again, Rural should bill or else the homeowner that gets city services but doesn’t pay anything hurts the city.

    Finally, what is lost is the fact that Rural/Metro responds to all calls for 911 regardless of jurisdiction. They do not charge if it is another agency but Rural goes where others won’t. There are many departments in the Phoenix area that are closer to a good number of calls but will not go out of area. Rural goes no matter what. The homeowner in question in this case lives just north of the City of Surprise and just outside of the Sun City West Fire District. Whitman Fire District is also closer. Why doesn’t the homeowner seek annexation into these entities? Rural/Metro clearly looks bad, but they didn’t create this mess.

    • Former Chief

      Chris, thanks for the detailed information. It would have been nice if the news reports included these details rather than primarily just focusing on the amount of the bill. Perhaps they should do an in depth look at fire protection in the rural unincorporated areas so that at least some of the general public who may actually pay attention understand. Maybe you can answer my question in a later post. How is Rural/Metro, or for that matter in this case, Surprise FD dispatched to these unincorporated areas? Who makes the determination of what FD/EMS agency to send where?

      • Chris


        911 calls route to the Sheriff’s office then to Rural/Metro’s dispatch center. From there, the responding crew determines a mutual aid request. The Phoenix system and the Mesa system have automatic aid and dispatch without regard to jurisdiction. Rural/Metro uses mutual aid and must request. This is another can of worms. If a call does not occur in an automatic aid city or hit a cell tower there, the call goes to Rural/Metro. Usually the crews are very good about requesting mutual aid. Always on significant calls. Rural does not request for minor calls such as snake removals.

  • Mack

    This part of the article wasn’t covered in Dave’s synopsis:

    “Residents living in the area pay a fire district assistance tax. The name alone implies it goes towards fire service in their area, but it doesn’t. It’s a county-wide tax to help fund volunteer fire districts.

    The people in Purcell’s neighborhood have no fire coverage, but they say they didn’t know that until after Purcell’s house fire.

    “Coincidentally, we all received a bill from Rural Metro fire informing us we have no fire coverage in our area, so they highly suggested we finally begin paying some fire coverage that we didn’t currently have,” said Miller.

    Thinking they were already paying for fire coverage, residents were skeptical that Rural Metro, who just filed for bankruptcy, was trying to make a buck marketing their fire subscription.”

  • Scott

    Why did the news show an IAFF Union sticker on the Rural Metro fire apparatus? They are not union, correct?

    • Chris

      Scott, Rural/Metro in Maricopa County is IAFF Local 3878. They organized in 1998. In fact, Rural/Metro was required to accept and negotiate with the union because it is a company. Many of the municipal departments have unions but they cannot negotiate on behalf of the union due to state laws. Rural/Metro Tucson area recently became an IAFF local 4944 and Southwest Ambulance ,which is a Rural/Metro Corporation is also IAFF local I-60.

  • Former Chief

    First, while Rural/Metro’s bill seems excessive, if they have a fee schedule that they follow, then that’s the cost. My questions go more towards what governmental entity is responsible for the area in question. The story said that these people live in an unincorporated area of the county. What County? And since they apparently pay County taxes, shouldn’t the County be responsible to provide fire protection or at least make the residents aware they have to subscribe for it. Also, the Surprise, AZ FD responded. Is this their response area? They were dispatched by someone. Who dispatched Rural/Metro? Are they on the “run card” for this area? It says there is no written mutual aid agreement so why is Rural/Metro even responding? It would appear that more oversight is necessary. But these situations are not unique to Arizona, it occurs all across this country. Lastly, while I realize this is not realistic, people need to be aware of who provides their emergency services, especially in rural areas. If you choose to live “out in the sticks”, you need to be aware that Police, Fire, and EMS services may be more than a few minutes away, as well as your trip to a hospital.

  • slackjawedyokel

    Every time one of these “pay for spray” incidents comes up, some one always beats their chest and spouts “WE DONT CARE IF WE GET PAID OR NOT. WE WILL RESPOND and anyone who doesn’t isn’t a real firefighter” -and I always wonder, have they ever been a chief of a viable fire department? It takes $ to run one correctly.

    • 2722

      Former MD and current PA firefighter here. Never once in my life have I ever heard of or seen a "pay for spray" dept other than in the news and I hope I never do. Fire protection is supposed to be a gov't mandated service. Whether it's a volunteer non-profit or career municipal or private comercial there is no excuse for this kind of ridiculous lack of oversight.


      For the record my current dept operates off of $40,000 a year and also operates a first reponse EMS service (also for free) and doesn't charge anything.

      My previous dept in MD operated off of a $1,000,000 annual budget and was only half as busy as my current. It's amazing what happens when your local govt doesnt have its head up its ass.

  • John

    I too do not believe in or like the idea of “subscription departments”; however, they do exist and we have to learn to live with them, or pay the fiddler each year in the form taxes – for either a VOLUNTEER or paid department. We must not overlook the fact that the homeowner has a right to learn to live with the conditions that exist or simply not buy the home with those conditions. it seems to me that in this case, the homeowner didn’t like the condition, but ignored it until the door slammed on him. It’s too late now to complain; m/o, you should not have bought the house with these conditions. I am sorry for your loss and hope you can recover from it.

  • Dan Cook

    Hey Dave, Have you got some background on this Rural Metro? Having served over 40 years in the fire service as Volunteer, Paid Call, and Career firefighter I would be interested to know what their status is and if career, are they in the IAFF? Wondering why these people do not start a local volunteer department. Might be restrictions or just to difficult to jump through the hoops and get the qualifications now.

  • Checker444

    This might have been the closest fire station. (Check out the yard to the right).

    This appears to be a sub station of the Wittmann Fire District. Apparently their HQ has 2 bays with Engine 762 and Brush 761 and Brush 762. Wittman FD added paramedics in 2011, and began to receive dispatch service from Rural Metro, which lowered their ISO rating, and earned homeowners a 33% reduction in insurance premiums. (per the local newspaper).

    • Checker444

      Here is the real story – Wittmann HQ Station was only 2 miles from the fire location

      • Checker444

        Actually it is approximately 3 air miles from the Wittman fire station to the fire scene. But it is unknown if they have access to the road alongside the canal that goes more or less directly from the fire station to the firescene.

        It appears that it is a road distance of close to 6 miles from the Wittman substation to the fire scene.