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Someone driving on Hwy. 35 saw the smoke from this wood-burning stove at Melgard Monument last week and called it in as a suspected structure fire. Debbie Griffin photo

False alarms cost same as real ones

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News River Falls, 54022
River Falls Journal
715-425-5666 customer support
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

A wood-burning stove triggered a false alarm Tuesday evening last week after a passerby noticed smoke coming from behind Melgard Monument, 266 Radio Road, just before 6 p.m. The driver became concerned and called 911, reporting the smoke as a possible structure fire.

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The River Falls Fire Department responded but found that it was Melgard's outdoor wood-burning stove that raised the driver's suspicions.

Smoke but no fire will still cost the company $600, the fee charged to rural fire customers each time the fire department responds.

Korey Knott, co-owner with his father of Melgard, said they break up wooden crates to use as fuel in the wood-burning stove. He said it isn't unusual for people see the smoke and think it's a fire, especially when the wood first goes into the stove.

"We usually have one a year," Knott said about the false-alarm fire calls.

He said the business appreciates people's concern. He considers it a good year if his company pays for only one false-alarm call.

Assistant Fire Chief Mike Moody says false-alarm calls happen more easily with the proliferation of cell phones. He said faulty or oversensitive smoke and carbon monoxide detectors also trigger many false alarms.

Moody said residents within the city limits don't pay an extra fee, "The fire protection service is part of the tax base."

The rural fire association charge $600 on a per-service basis. They also regulate the fee, which pays for the deployment of equipment and personnel.

The subject surfaces often in rural fire association meetings.

Moody confirms that bonfires can also trigger false alarms for which people pay. Many don't realize they need a burn permit and to call emergency dispatchers to inform them of the burn.

Though a $600 fee can be a hardship on some residents and businesses, fire departments are obliged by state law to respond to all alarms and emergency calls to determine the cause. Moody said sometimes a person's property insurance policy pays the fee with no deductible.

He said there is no sure-fire way of knowing when to call when not to call. He'd rather people err to the side of caution.

Moody recalls an instance when the department responded to a residential kitchen fire on a stove. The owners thought they'd extinguished the fire, but upon investigating, firefighters found flames still inside the walls.

He says he can't blame well-intentioned callers for wanting to make sure people are safe.

Moody says people who have concerns about River Falls Rural Fire Association billing should contact a represenative of their town board.

Readers react

The Journal posted a story online last week explaining the origin of Tuesday night's sirens. Reader comments underscore the issue(s) related to false-alarm fees charged to rural customers.

  • "There are many ways to budget, none are right or wrong. But very few bill this way anymore."
  • "The city still has to find a way to fund the EMTs and firefighters that respond to these calls and the costs associated. And we all know there would be an uproar to raise the taxes to cover 'good intent' coverage."
  • "I think it's an awful thing to charge a business or homeowner for something they have absolutely nothing to do with. The fact that someone driving by can take $600 out of someone's pocket is simply weird."
  • "It's a shame on confirmed 'good intent' calls that the bill still has to be sent. The people shouldn't be afraid to call because of a potential bill...caller or landowner needs the protection of 'good intent.'"

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