How Elgin’s fire department covers the city’s boundaries
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org @DanaheyECN January 1, 2014 3:34PM
Alexander's is in Elgin and the hotel adjacent to it is in West Dundee. That is part of the reason there is an automatic aid agreement involving the Elgin and West Dundee fire departments. | Mike Danahey/Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 3, 2014 1:44PM
ELGIN — If you live or travel at the edges of Elgin’s boundaries and you’re involved in an accident, need an ambulance or have a fire at your home, there’s a chance the Elgin Fire Department might not be the first responder on the scene.
And there are good public safety reasons for that.
The Elgin department has a number of agreements with other departments and fire protection districts to help ensure that the response to the emergency in question is as prompt as possible.
Elgin Fire Chief John Fahy explained that automatic-aid agreements are approved by the city council and allow for the closest unit, regardless of jurisdiction, to be dispatched to calls for services involving the fire departments or fire districts in question, along with the units from the area of jurisdiction.
Some automatic agreements have been long-standing, such as one between Elgin and the South Elgin & Countryside Fire Protection District. Elgin’s need for them grew as the city and other local towns expanded their boundaries farther out and in sometimes geometrically odd shapes.
That left public safety and public works departments with new areas to cover that could be a good distance from existing stations or headquarters.
In Elgin’s case, the city spread west in patches, as far north as Randall Road and Route 72 between West Dundee and Gilberts; as far south as Silver Glen Road near South Elgin and St. Charles; and northwest toward Pingree Grove. At the same time, to its east, new subdivisions in Bartlett and Hoffman Estates were built closer to Elgin.
As such, Fahy said, “We can’t cover things the way we used to do.” Automatic-aid agreements “are the future of meeting such community needs.”
Elgin now has automatic-aid agreements that are reciprocal in nature with no fewer than six other fire protection agencies, some Elgin has sought, some other entities have initiated.
Examples of automatic-aid agreements initiated by other departments with Elgin include one with the East Dundee Fire Protection District to cover the area north of Interstate 90 and off Route 25. That includes Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation and the Milk Pail Restaurant that are in fire district’s boundaries and Elgin’s area that includes the Lexington Inn and business sites off Brandt Drive.
Another is with the South Elgin district, in part so that a pocket of the district near Elgin Community College that is closer for Elgin to handle has faster initial responses.
Farther west, “Crawford and McDonald roads coverage is with South Elgin, as they have a station on McDonald,” Fahy said.
In recent years, Elgin has initiated automatic-aid agreements with the village of West Dundee and its fire department to handle the area north of Interstate 90 along Route 31. It includes hotels and an apartment complex that are in West Dundee, and a gas station and industrial and office space near St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Elgin.
“The Holiday Inn is in Elgin, and the Marriott Suites is in West Dundee but behind Alexander’s Restaurant, which is in Elgin,” Fahy said, pointing to how confusing boundaries can be.
An automatic-aid agreement with Rutland-Dundee Fire Protection District is set up in part to cover north of I-90 off Randall Road. The area includes The Grove business area with its numerous restaurants and the Northwest Corporate Park behind it in Elgin. The village of Sleepy Hollow is just across Randall to the east, and the busy intersection of Route 72 and Randall Road is on the north end.
“We respond to Rutland-Dundee in Sleepy Hollow as well as to the Gilberts subdivision off of Big Timber in return for their 72 and Randall coverage,” Fahy said.
“Our automatic-aid agreement with the Pingree Grove & Countryside Fire Protection District is strictly west on Highland Avenue to cover Highland Woods and along Plank Road where the city annexed the Jack Cook Park.”
An agreement with the Huntley Fire Protection District “is exclusively for response on the tollway during construction. With the inability to cross over or the loss of exit entrance ramps, we respond westbound into Huntley’s district, and they respond eastbound into Elgin’s district. The construction is a two- to three-year project, so we will revisit that agreement once the job is complete,” Fahy said.
Fahy said another automatic-aid agreement may be in the works with the Bartlett Fire Protection District for the area around Bartlett and Spaulding roads, where there are industrial sites in Elgin and subdivisions in Bartlett.
On top of all that, local fire departments and districts also have mutual-aid agreements. Those involve major incidents in which extra units are needed. There is a predetermined set of responses, and such aid has to be requested as the emergency situation is happening, Fahy said.
The formal agreements have been set up since the late 1960s through the statewide Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS). Elgin is part of Illinois MABAS Division 2 (www.mabas2.org), which includes 15 fire departments or districts.
A prime example of MABAS in practice was the September fire caused by lightning at Village Pizza and Pub in Carpentersville, where at least eight fire departments or districts wound up assisting.
All this also points toward the difference between departments and districts.
Fire departments are part of a city or village government and are funded through municipality budgets. Fire districts levy their own taxes to pay for their operations and cover not only municipalities but also surrounding land that most often is unincorporated and/or undeveloped.
Complicating the issue are “paper districts,” Fahy said. Those exist only on paper and contract out for services, most typically from an adjacent body that has a fire department. They also are independent taxing bodies, with that money going to pay for the services provided. An example would be areas near West Dundee served by the village of West Dundee Fire Department.
In recent years, some paper districts have moved to become actual brick-and-mortar districts with their own staff and buildings. Those include areas that had been served by departments in Palatine and St. Charles that are now independent, Fahy said, noting that on Jan. 1, the Barrington and Countryside Fire Protection District began operating in an area that had been served by the Barrington’s village department.
Who gets paid
Either way, for someone who winds up in an ambulance, Fahy said, “Regardless of where the incident is, the department that transports the patient is the one who gets paid.”
In 2011, Elgin updated city ordinances, raising the rates for various fire services, including ambulance charges. It was the first change for the ordinances in 10 years.
“Prior to the 2011 ordinance change, the rates were adjusted annually as Medicare rates changed,” Fahy said.
For those transported who have third-party insurance, charges not covered by that insurance remain the responsibility of the patient. People who are covered under Medicare and Medicaid are not responsible for the unpaid balance, with the difference “written down,” Fahy said.
In 2010, revenue collected for Elgin Fire Department ambulance service was $1.4 million; in 2011, $1.431 million; and in 2012, $1.854 million. The estimate for 2013 is $1.85 million.
The charge for basic life support transport rose from $355 to $442.74 for Elgin residents and from $444 to $692.75 for nonresidents. Advanced life support Level 1 went from $422 to $525.75 for Elginites and from $528 to $900 for outsiders. Advanced life support Level 2 went from $611 to $760 for Elgin residents and from $764 to $1,135 for nonresidents.
The city also began to charge for ambulance mileage, measured from the location of the emergency to the hospital, at a rate of $10 per mile for anyone transported. Any such charges not covered by insurance remain the responsibility of the patient, as it had been in the 2001 ordinance.
Fahy noted that Naperville conducts an extensive survey each year comparing area ambulance service rates.
“Our resident rates are well below the average, and our nonresident rates are slightly above the average. This was by design,” Fahy said.