Fire calls procedure called into question

Village board clashes with fire department on cost of calls
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The Wittenberg Fire Department did not need to be called out to douse the flames of a heated discussion on fire calls and their fees at the March 5 meeting for the Wittenberg Village Board between Wittenberg Town Board Chairman Dick Beversdorf and several village board members.

The matter of fire calls was not specifically on the agenda but came up when Village Trustee Marlene Wepner was giving her report on meeting with the fire department last month. Wepner noted there was discussion about a resident’s bill from the fire department when it went out in response to a call about seeing flames on someone’s property.

“It’s either pay the $200, or they’ll take it to the DNR (Department of Natural Resources),” Wepner said about the fire department’s response. “It was not a good conversation.”

Village Board member Paul Yaeger noted the village board had actually asked whether residents should be billed and have to pay for fire calls when they’ve obtained legal burn permits — what Yaeger referred to as “false alarms.”

Beversdorf noted that the bill was reduced to $200 when normally the fire department would charge $700 for the first hour for its services.

“This board should never have taken it up,” Beversdorf said. “First off, we have a (fire) district that deals with all of this. Number two, the fire was not in the village.”

Yaeger argued that even though the incident in question was in the Town of Wittenberg and not the village, it is a situation that village residents could find themselves in, as the fire department serves both the town and the village.

“We asked for a situation to be addressed by your board,” Yaeger said.

Beversdorf said that, if the property owner had been there when the fire department arrived, the fee would have been waived, but because the owner was not there to point out that the burn was a controlled one, with all the permits needed, policy demanded billing for the call.

Village Board member Barb Buchholz felt it was inappropriate for someone who has obtained a legal burn permit to be charged because someone else saw smoke and flames and called the fire department.

“The homeowner or the person who owns the land where the fire is, if it’s contained, and they (the firefighters) don’t have to do anything, that homeowner shouldn’t be charged,” Buchholz said.

Beversdorf reiterated that, under that scenario, the fee would have been waived, but the permits require someone to be present to watch over the fire to make sure it doesn’t get out of control.

“The biggest issue was he had a fire, he left the scene for more than at least 45 minutes,” Beversdorf said. “The passer-by should have just drove off, but the passer-by saw the fire, didn’t exactly see what was going on but saw flames coming up.”

Beversdorf added he spoke with the property owner, and then he spoke with Fire Chief James Sterk, who Beversdorf said recommended charging $200 instead of the normal $700.

“I talked with the gentleman, said we were going to drop it from $700 to $200, and he said he was satisfied,” Beversdorf said. “Now, he’s not satisfied, evidently, because you’re bringing it up.”

Beversdorf noted that, while the village and town share ownership of the fire department, the village board shouldn’t be solely dictating how it functions. The practice of charging for fire calls dates back to 2012 at least, he said.

“If you don’t want us to charge, tell us,” Beversdorf said. “We’ll go back to when the village had it and it used to be free, but then someone’s going to have to pay it.”

Yaeger said the call wasn’t an actual fire call because of the permit, so the property owner should not be held responsible for somebody else who didn’t know about the permit calling about the fire.

“When it’s a situation like we’re talking about — self-contained and in something — when you go out there just because somebody drove by and said it, yeah, it should go out for free,” Yaeger said, claiming the call was frivolous.

Beversdorf claimed going by that policy would force the fire department to close its doors.

“We don’t know if there’d be enough money for the ambulance and the fire department to operate by the end of the year if we give away things, to boot,” Beversdorf said.

The reason the DNR could get involved if the bill is not paid is because the fire was outdoors, Beversdorf said, which can put it under the state department’s purview.