Households in some counties could be faced with bills of more than €1,000 from their local authority for help with a fire in their home, while others get the same service for free, an Irish Examiner investigation has found.
An analysis of the fire service fees set by county and city councils shows huge differences in the amounts the public may be charged should they need to call the fire brigade.
Home insurance only covers call-outs where there is damage to property insured under the policy which can be the subject of a claim, according to Insurance Ireland.
And while the charges can leave a significant dent in the pockets of hard-pressed homeowners, figures show that the income councils receive from the fees is just a small proportion of the overall cost of the service.
The highest charge was seen in Westmeath, where a one-hour callout to a domestic blaze could set homeowners back €1,350 in fire service fees. This was closely followed by Cork County Council, which charges €1,320.
Both charges are on a per-hour basis, meaning that a fire that takes several hours to extinguish could cost the householder more. To address this, several councils have placed a cap on the maximum amount householders can be charged. For example, Offaly and Cork County Councils operate a €1,500 maximum charge policy, while Kilkenny has a cap of €2,000.
In this survey, Donegal Co Council had the third-highest charge, but their €1,000 fee is based on the number of fire vehicles required, irrespective of the duration of the callout. All figures sourced in this investigation relate to a hypothetical situation where two fire vehicles are deployed for one hour.
The above costs contrast sharply with four other councils, which offer free assistance in battling house fires. Cork City Council and the County Councils of Kerry, Monaghan and Waterford enforce no charge for domestic fire assistance.
The majority of local authorities charging for house fire callouts display information on the prices involved on their respective websites. However, in many cases, the calculation of fees requires a complex knowledge of the obligations on fire services in responding to house fires, and the costs the council will have to bear from the callout.
For example, for domestic fires, Kilkenny County Council charges €70 per hour for each firefighter attending the scene. Under the council’s policy, a minimum of ten personnel must attend a domestic fire, meaning an hourly charge of at least €700 for such a callout. The council’s charge is capped at €2,000.
On their websites, many councils display a charge for a single fire vehicle to come to a homeowner’s aid but do not mention how many vehicles will be required. Under the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management’s 2013 document ‘Keeping Communities Safe – A Framework for Fire Safety in Ireland’, a list of “pre-determined attendances” for each incident type indicated that fire services should dispatch at least two fire engines to the scene of a non-chimney house blaze, irrespective of the size of the blaze.
Despite these guidelines, Mayo County Council insisted that, in the majority of incidents they call to, just one appliance is deployed. A spokesperson suggested charges calculated for this investigation should be based a one-vehicle callout – even though this goes against national pre-determined attendance recommendations.
Calculations become even harder for the public to understand when fees are displayed on a ‘per station’ basis, as is the case in Galway, Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon. If two vehicles are dispatched from a single station to deal with a fire, the homeowner will be charged a set fee for one station.
Charges highlighted in this analysis relate to one-station attendances. However, many stations based in smaller rural towns only have one fire engine in their possession, meaning that locals in these areas will immediately be charged fees for two stations just to meet the minimum pre-determined attendance requirements.
A total of five counties charge their residents the cost of the firefighters’ pay for the callout, with three adding an extra administrative fee that ranges from 25 to 33 per cent of wages, to cover overheads.
These counties generally have a retained fire service, where firefighters are paid for respective callouts as opposed to working in a full-time station. 2015 figures for fire services personnel showed that just three councils — Dublin City, Cork City and Louth County — employed more full-time firefighters than retained officers.
Under a national public service agreement signed by central Government, wages for an on-call retained firefighter start at €44.10 for the first hour of a callout and €22.05 for each additional hour. During nights and weekends these rates double, meaning that a one-hour night-time callout for a domestic fire involving ten firefighters could cost €882 before any prospective administrative charges are applied.
While this analysis focussed on charges for daytime incidents, seven councils charge extra for house fire assistance during the night, at weekends and on bank holidays. Carlow, Cavan, Laois, Leitrim, Longford and Wicklow double their fees for out-of-hours fires, while Roscommon increases charges by 50 per cent.
An analysis of charges for night-time or weekend house fire shows the number of councils charging €1,000 or more increasing from three to seven, with Cavan, Laois, Longford and Wicklow included in this group.
The charges above relate to any type of fire in the home, with the exception of chimney fires which are charged at lower rates and in almost all cases set as flat fees rather than ‘per hour’ costs.
Charges are calculated from the time fire engines are mobilised from their stations.
Most local authorities which collect fire fees also operate a waiver system, where some or all of the cost of the charge can be renounced in cases of hardship or where the homeowner is unemployed or holds a medical card. Fees are also not usually charged when the fire has resulted in a death or serious injury.
The Social Democrats’ spokesperson for Local Government, Cian O’Callaghan, described the widely disparate charges as an issue of fairness. “Why should you be charged for a vital public service if you live in one county but not if you live in another?"
He said it was "deeply unfair" to add to the stress of a house fire with added financial pressure, and called for proper resourcing for local authorities.
A statement from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage pointed to insurance policies and waiver schemes as a way to alleviate the impact of charges on households, adding that “it is a matter for each local authority to determine whether to charge users or beneficiaries of a service that fire authority provides including attendance at fire incidents and the cost of that charge.
“Fire services in Ireland receive funding from three sources: Government, commercial rates and charges. Local authorities are permitted to charge for fire services, with fees varying between different authorities and on the nature of the service provided.”
As part of a four-year national Fire Service Capital Programme, the Government has committed to €61 million in funding which will see six new fire stations built, continued support for the construction of a further 12 new fire stations, nine fire station refurbishments and 35 new fire engines allocated to fire services around the country.
Up to €500 charge for chimney fires
Householders in some parts of Ireland could have to pay as much as €500 for help with a chimney fire, while others are assisted for free.
The most expensive counties in which to avail of emergency assistance for a chimney fire are Dublin and Westmeath, at a minimum of €500. While the fee is a flat charge in Westmeath, in Dublin it applies to the first hour of assistance – should the fire callout last longer than one hour, householders are then charged at €450 per hour or part thereof.
Conversely, counties Monaghan and Waterford and the area served by Cork City Council provide a free callout service to householders for domestic chimney fires. All other counties charge a flat fee for the service, irrespective of time or personnel requirements, with the exception of Donegal which charges €250 per fire vehicle required. Laois’s charge of €150 rises to €200 if not paid after 14 days from date of invoice.
Chimney fires are the most common type of blaze and differ from other house fires in how firefighters respond. Under the national pre-determined attendance guidelines, just one emergency vehicle is required to attend a chimney fire. As a result, all bar one council charges the same or less for a chimney fire compared to other domestic blazes (Kerry County Council charges €100 for a chimney fire but nothing for other types of housefire). People who live in social housing are exempt from charges for all types of housefire.
Dublin City Council operates a fire service for its wider county, including the administrative areas under Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal and South Dublin County Councils. Galway County Council also manages a fire service that covers its administrative area as well as the region under Galway City Council.
Commenting on the charges, a spokesperson for Dublin City Council said: “Local Authorities introduced fire brigade call-out charges at a domestic level in 2012, and they now operate in all counties. Each council sets out their own billing structure and rates, Dublin City Council charge for fire brigade services for domestic fires, traffic accidents and fires on commercial premises.
“Most home insurance companies provide cover for fire brigade call-out charges, however, Dublin Fire Brigade make every effort to engage with individuals and companies experiencing payment difficulties. In the event that a member of the public is aware or suspects a fire then I would encourage them to call the fire brigade.”
Many home insurance policies promise to cover the cost of fire charges up to certain limits that, according to a 2014 survey by the AA, amounts to an average of €2,100. However, depending on the cost of contents to be covered and the size of the dwelling, home insurance can cost anywhere between €250 and €500 per year, making it unaffordable for many.
A statement from Insurance Ireland, the body which represents the country’s insurance sector, outlined that fire brigade charges will only be covered in home policies so long as there is damage to the buildings or contents covered, and the householder makes a claim for such damage.
“All claims made to cover fire service charges must be valid under the terms of the insurance policy,” it added. “The terms will vary from insurer to insurer as they make their own individual decisions on the terms of their contracts and they compete with each other on this basis. It would be a matter for individual insurers but it would generally feed into the overall cost of claims.”
In response to this investigation, a representative of Westmeath County Council said that it does not plan to review its charges “at this time,” stressing the availability of a fee waiver scheme for homeowners and adding that charges “have been set in the context of the overall operational costs of providing a fire brigade service in the county.”
When asked whether householders across the country should be charged the same for the same fire service, a spokesperson for Donegal County Council said that “There are merits in having a countrywide uniform scale of charges,” adding that “additional funding from central government would always be welcome.”
Cork: One county, two very different pricing structures
It’s just one county, but it holds two very different views on charging the public for fire services.
Cork is the only county in Ireland with two local authorities operating separate fire services. But while Cork County Council charges the public some of the highest rates in the country for callouts, Cork City Council is unique in that it provides this service to its population for free, no matter the type of incident.
This will be particularly good news for those who live in areas such as Ballincollig, Glanmire, Douglas, Frankfield, Grange, Blarney, Tower and Whites Cross. These areas left the remit of Cork County Council in 2019 and are now part of Cork City Council in an extension of the city’s boundaries that added 85,000 residents.
This means that, while a one-hour domestic house fire callout would have cost residents of these towns €1,320 in service charges under the old council boundaries, they can now avail of firefighting duties for free under the City Council’s policy. The maximum charge in Cork County for domestic fires and road traffic collisions is €1,500.
Ballincollig based councillor Derry Canty was elected to Cork City Council in 2019 after previously being a County Councillor under the old boundary line. He finds it unusual that Cork City Council has adopted a no-fee approach but with city residents facing rising costs elsewhere, he doesn’t want the situation to change.
“I have only been here three years, but I was 28 years at Cork County Council and we always had a debate at budget time in relation to [fire charges]. We always charged. But Cork City has adopted their own way of doing things.”
In a statement, Cork County Council said that “fire charges are periodically reviewed, and where necessary a revised Director’s Order will issue to give effect to any changes.”
Marcia D’Alton is an independent Cork County Councillor based close to the new boundary line. “I’m in the Carrigaline Municipal District, but I’m based in Passage West, so I literally put my foot left and I’m in city territory.” She remembers when city firefighters — which are full-time staff — would often assist their county counterparts — who are retained or ‘on-call’ firefighters — on major fires in the county, and vice versa.
However, since the boundary change, this has changed.
“There was a fire locally a year and a half ago and the two fire vehicles on the scene were Carrigaline and Crosshaven, which is ironic, because I would’ve thought it would have taken less time to get from the city to Passage West than it would from Crosshaven to Passage West — that’s a 25 minute journey in my car, whereas I could drive to the city in less time.
“I didn’t understand the dynamics and the planning behind that.”
In January 2021 a major fire caused severe damage to the R&H Hall grain store on the Ringaskiddy Deepwater Berth at Cork Harbour. Fire units from Crosshaven, Carrigaline and Midleton were first at the scene. Services were also deployed from Bandon and Cobh — all county-based stations — as part of an operation involving at least 30 firefighters.
Michael Paul Murtagh has worked full time with Cork City Council for 23 years and was co-opted onto Cork County Council for Fine Gael in June last year.
“I can’t remember there ever being a fire call of that size that we [the city brigade] would not have attended, in my 20-odd years in the city. Likewise, if there is a big fire in the city, the county is called in,” he told the Irish Examiner.
“In general, when relations are good, Carrigaline would normally look for backup. There’s been changes in personnel, station officers are not the same as they used to be, and it’s really up to the station officer to make the call about who they want responding in their area. Ringaskiddy is in the area of Carrigaline and it’s in the county remit.”
Cllr Murtagh is a strong supporter of hiring full-time firefighters in stations as opposed to retained staff, which is much more common in more rural regions. He points to the ability of full-time personnel to adapt their services to aid the public without added expense to local budgets.
“In the city, we run a cardiac crew, which is like a mini ambulance for people who are in cardiac arrest. We do CPR until the ambulance crews arrive.
“It was said to me ‘couldn’t the same thing be done in the county?’. But the county charges per callout so that would be an extremely expensive service to add to the county, whereas it costs nothing in the city, because all firefighters are already paid for.”
This investigation was produced in conjunction with UCD Data Journalism.