Alternative Funding Sources For the Fire Service

As we move further into the 21st century, the base of our financial support is, in many areas, under attack. This is unfortunate, as the need for our skills and talents remains. What seems to be missing from the citizen/government interface is an understanding, on the part of the citizen, that there are no free lunches in the world today.

For you younger readers, the concept of a free lunch became a popular marketing device for saloon proprietors early in the 20th century. If you, the customer, bought a beer, the proprietor provided a meal to go with it. Usually, the meal consisted of cold cuts, bread, pickles and hard-boiled eggs. It was a widely used device to gain and maintain a loyal consumer base. However, the fact that this concept disappeared tells us a lot about its fiscal viability. The cost of the free lunch grew to be too great for the tavern owner.

If the free-lunch idea did not work for tavern owners, who had a fairly popular product to work with, how could it ever work with a concept as unpopular as government? You know government; they are the people who bring you laws, taxes and wars. Far too many people continue to make demands without understanding that the financial resources of any entity are a finite commodity.

Government operates with people and things. These both require the infusion of dollars. Money is the lubricant that lets the engine of government operate smoothly. And it is John Q. Public (you and me) who fills the oil drum of government lubrication. You are all aware of the use of taxes. It would serve no good purpose here to speak of increasing taxes to cover costs. What I will do, however, is supply you with information on some ways in which you can supplement the available tax dollars.

As a long-time volunteer firefighter and former EMS person, I am not without experience in the generation of capital. Counting my volunteer EMS service, I have been involved with the concept of "hustling a buck" for more than 40 years. My volunteer fire department still holds biannual pancake breakfasts and an annual mail solicitation program. My earliest memories of fund-raising come from my days in the Freehold, NJ, First Aid Squad, where we went door-to-door on our annual fund drive beginning in June 1964. My associates and I knocked on doors, met friends, made new friends and told our story to the public in a one-on-one manner.

In a small community, you are faced with a smaller pool of dollars. However, you are blessed with the face-to-face nature of the service you deliver. People are more willing to part with money in support of a service delivered by their neighbors. And in a smaller community, the service demands are normally less intense. This was the case in Freehold back then. Let me assure you that as the population has blossomed over the past four decades, the level of person-to-person interaction has plummeted. It is a lot tougher to raise money now.

The same will hold true for you. Unfortunately, as your community grows and the relationships between people grow more distant, the ability to generate capital deteriorates. The pool of resources is bigger, but the fish are less willing to take your bait. In this case, a door-to-door campaign becomes more difficult because of the logistics involved.

The next step is usually a mail campaign, which does not have the immediacy and personality of a door-to-door campaign. There is generally a dropoff in funds. At this point, we look at the standard supplemental events. A quick and partial list of things that I have seen and done to raise money follows:

  1. Carnivals
  2. Pancake breakfasts
  3. Bingo
  4. Chicken barbecues
  5. Dances
  6. 50-50 draws
  7. Flea markets
  8. Raffles
  9. Tractor pulls
  10. Mail campaigns

How much better would our training, learning experiences and fireground operations be if we were not continually trying to raise money? Surely, the public would rather we were great fire and EMS providers than dynamite short-order cooks. Perhaps it is our fault that they have not been taught to better appreciate what we are doing for them.

Now let us suppose, for argument's sake, that you have no further access to added tax dollars. Let us also suppose that your organization is in cholesterol shock from having fried too many eggs and potatoes. And further, let us observe that one more 1950s dance or sock hop will lead to murder, mayhem and divorce. Where can you turn for help?

For government-supported, local, fire district and county emergency service groups, you may wish to pursue the concept of user fees. These break down into two basic areas of administration. The first are fees for goods consumed and the second revolves around fees charged for regulatory services. In either case, they are paid by the person receiving the service.

In New Jersey, a wide variety of user fees support the delivery of regulatory services under the Uniform Construction Code and the State Fire Prevention Code. Many communities fund their fire prevention operations through fees charged for the inspection of certain specific life use occupancies.

My research has discovered that in Williamsburg, VA, a special user fee was created and added to the cost of meals and hotel rooms. This fee is dedicated to the support of fire and emergency services. Their local research indicated the existence of a high level of transient emergency service demand. This was attributed to the tourist trade in that community. Because of this, it was felt that such a fee was an excellent way to receive funding from those people who were generating the demand.

In other sections of America, fees are being assessed for such diverse functions as potential fire-flow demand, possible fire equipment usage levels and EMS delivery assessments. The only limits are those that exist in your mind and in the mind of your legal counsel.

Where now can you turn for guidance? The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has published two outstanding documents that outline alternative funding sources:

  • Federal Domestic Assistance Information
  • A Guide to Funding Alternatives for Fire and Emergency Medical Services Departments

Both of these documents are available from the USFA at 16825 South Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, MD 21727. I have read both and incorporated a great deal of their information into my consulting, writing and speaking assignments. These two books are in the "must-read" category for diligent fire and EMS leaders.

Remember, any time not spent fighting for funds can be devoted to training, drilling and preparing for that next real emergency. Let us get our fire and EMS people out of the kitchen and onto the training grounds.

DR. HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Dr. Carter is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is vice president of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). He recently published Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a blog. He may be contacted at