Julia Jen (front, left), George Progulakis and Alina Jen got lost at the boulders section of Clarence Schock Memorial Park near Mt. Gretna on Thanksgiving 2016 and were billed for being rescued. (Photo: Submitted, Lebanon Daily News)
(Mount Gretna) -- Julia Jen's family anticipated a pleasant, free day of fun when they hiked Clarence Schock Memorial Park on Thanksgiving Day 2016.
But instead of being free, the trip ended up costing them $1,500.
The New Jersey residents had obtained incorrect GPS coordinates for the heavily wooded park near Mt. Gretna, causing them to lose their bearings and leading to a search-and-rescue operation in the dark headed by the volunteer-run Mt. Gretna Fire Company, Jen said.
Jen and her family made it home safe and sound. But when they received $1,500 in bills - $500 per person - she wasn't in a thankful mood.
"We were definitely shocked," Jen said. "I've never heard of this happening before."
Concerns about being billed could also discourage people from seeking help in the future, she argued - and according to search-and-rescue experts, those concerns aren't unfounded.
Lebanon County fire departments are increasingly likely to bill insurance companies for their services as the cost for equipment rises, fundraising becomes more difficult and volunteer numbers dwindle.
But when fire companies go beyond the insurance companies to bill people who call 911, the practice is discouraged by at least some leaders in the search-and-rescue field.
Thanksgiving Day dawned with decent if slightly cool hiking weather - increasingly overcast skies with a high temperature of 47, according to AccuWeather.
"We tried everything before calling 911 for help," she said.
Jen eventually did call 911, seeking correct GPS coordinates to exit the center. Although they were not in immediate danger since they had water, food and warm clothing, the dispatchers "insisted" that it was necessary to call a search party, she said. Mt. Gretna Fire Department responded with a search-and-rescue operation, including a lighting generator and lighting equipment, she said.
Jen provided the Lebanon Daily News with copies of the $500 bills that they each received from PA Fire Recovery Service, a collections company that bills on behalf of Mt. Gretna Fire Department.
"Now knowing of this high fee, in the future if we are lost, we would hesitate to call 911, and this could put anyone in grave danger to (not seek) help," Jen wrote in an email.
A Mount Gretna Fire Company official declined comment for this article, saying the fire company would need to discuss the situation at its April 17 public meeting before it could provide any comment.
Lebanon County EMA Director Bob Dowd said dispatchers aren't trained to guide people out but to notify help by following a set of protocols. They wouldn't know whether or not the emergency service provider they dispatch would charge for services, he said.
Dowd also emphasized that people should only call 911 in a true emergency.
When there is a true emergency, however, search-and-rescue experts doesn't want people to hesitate over concern that they will be charged.
"When you have to make a decision in an emergency you don't want to be hamstrung with economics," Ken Phillips, chief of search and rescue for the National Park Service, told Outside Magazine in 2015.
The National Association for Search and Rescue recommends even volunteer emergency providers not charge people they rescue to prevent such delays, President Chris Boyer said.
The idea that people would refuse to call for help over financial worries is backed by antidotal evidence, Boyer said, such as the young man stranded on Mt. Whitney, Calif. who texted his friends for help - not seeking a search-and-rescue, but only "supplies" to help him survive while he tried to find his way out.
When people delay, it can also put rescuers in greater danger, Boyer said.
"I would much rather have my guys go in during the daytime than during the nighttime," he said.
Still, Mt. Gretna isn't alone in charging for search-and-rescue operations. New Hampshire, for example, makes someone responsible for the cost if it is determined they needed search-and-rescue because they acted "negligently" .
PA Fire Recovery Service President Shawn Meder said some emergency service providers do bill for search-and-rescues, and there typically are no insurance policies covering search-and-rescue operations.
The bill Jen received cites an ordinance Mt. Gretna adopted in March 2016 allowing the Mt. Gretna Fire Company to recover costs for responding to various emergencies. However, Mt. Gretna Borough Council President Charles Allwein understood the primary purpose of Mt. Gretna's ordinance was to bill insurance companies, not people who call 911, he said.
In the case of a fire or a wreck, at least, "we would have never tried to pass that along to the affected individual," Allwein said.
Many Lebanon County towns have ordinances similar to Mt. Gretna's, including Cleona, which on April 3 passed an ordinance permitting cost recovery for calls such as hazardous material incidents or vehicle crashes. But those ordinances are typically focused on billing insurance companies, not people who call 911.
Here's the situation, according to several Lebanon County fire officials: Many insurance policies pledge a payment for a fire department response. But they often don't pay that unless the fire departments fight for it, and unless towns have an ordinance specifically allowing them to seek reimbursement.
Add in the ever-increasing financial struggles of fire companies, and it's no wonder that business is booming for PA Fire Recovery Service.
Meder started the company about 13 years ago because he saw fire companies shutting down due to financial pressure.
A new tower truck can now cost $1.2 million - a price that's tough to afford on chicken corn soup sales - and people are leaving fire companies because they are discouraged by the amount of time they need to spend raising funds, said Don Konkle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire & Emergency Services Institute. Fire companies said a Jaws of Life can cost $6,000.
"We didn't want to make fire departments rich, we just wanted to keep the doors open," Meder said.
Without any advertising, PA Fire Recovery Service grew by 100 clients last year, he said - nearly one-seventh of its 750 total.
Fredericksburg Fire Company Chief Kevin Snader is one satisfied client. PA Fire Recovery Service garnered about $12,000 in reimbursements for Fredericksburg from insurers even after the 15 percent commission the billing company keeps, Snader said. That's enough money to pay the company's entire annual fuel bill or replace 3-4 sets of gear.
Still, most of the fire companies for which PA Fire Recovery Service bills only go after insurance companies, not people who call 911, Meder said. Several Lebanon County fire department officials also said that at least in the case of a fire, they would only charge an insurer.
Konkle compared residents being charged for a fire to being uninsured for health care and therefore delaying medical attention. "Then you get a delayed alarm and a bigger fire," he said.
Konkle said the best solution for attaining budget stability without charging 911 callers is to spread the cost throughout the community with a fire tax, Konkle said. Six Lebanon County municipalities have dedicated fire property taxes separate from general municipal taxes: Richland Borough and East Hanover, North Cornwall, North Lebanon, South Lebanon, and South Londonderry townships.
Of course, the best way to avoid a bill is to avoid getting lost in the first place.
Jen's family wasn't alone in getting lost despite being armed with a cell phone, Boyer said.
People used to be especially cautious when they reached the edge of cell phone service in the woods, he said, but today people expect cell phone signals everywhere. That simply doesn't match reality, where there are still huge areas without cell coverage.
Even if you have cell phone service, it might only be from one tower, not the 2-3 often needed for the cell phone to triangulate and provide accurate coordinates of your location, he warned.
This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.
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