Comment: Firing up the fees
Last week the City Council, whose members are frustrated about what they consider a misuse of our public safety resources, discussed plans to start charging people for making non-emergency calls to the Fire Department.
The reasons they gave were compelling: Businesses that were the subject of repeat calls due to stuck elevators their owners failed to repair, or a laundromat that got repeat calls because its lint traps weren’t properly cleaned out, are costing the city money it can ill afford to let.
But the council’s solution is far too broad: Start charging everyone, including residents, for making non-emergency calls to the Fire Department. And I fear the consequences for someone who decides not to call the Fire Department when they should have because they’re not sure if they’ll be charged could end up being tragic.
No one wants our police and firefighters to be used as elevator repairmen, plumbers or locksmiths. But the numbers submitted to the council by the Fire Department show that they, at least, really aren’t. Last year, fewer than 2 percent of the 6,000 or so calls the department got were non-emergency calls.
The circumstances under which something gets tagged a non-emergency call are so vague that they could prompt people who can ill afford a $420 bill from the city to forgo calling in an actual emergency. For example, if someone’s basement floods and there’s a water heater that needs to be shut off, it’s an emergency call. But if no such hazard exists, expect a bill. Is it fair to expect people to remember the difference? And do we really want people to think twice about calling for help under these circumstances?
To top it off, the amount of money this change would generate, if the city abides by the mayor’s suggestion to charge non-emergency callers for an hour of the Fire Department’s time, wouldn’t even cover two weeks of overtime there (the original proposal, for a half hour of time, would cover less than a week). So what has the the city accomplished, other than teaching a handful of errant businesses a lesson – at the potential expense of others’ safety?
Other solutions are being proposed, and it could serve the council well to work with those who are proposing them to craft changes that really do cut down on calls that should be made to professional tradespeople (Robb Ratto of the Park Street Business Association, for example, suggested that businesses get one freebie and then get charged for subsequent calls). Let’s consider some options and the potential consequences of this decision before it gets made.