The Haves & Have-Nots

Barry Furey points out the diff erence in regional fi re department spending and funding and how this aff ects the level of service.


Last year, a series of articles titled "Fire Alarm," published in the Long Island, NY, newspaper Newsday and disseminated widely on the Internet, drew attention to spending by the region's volunteer fire departments. The series caused a stir and helped to continue the lively debate regarding...


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Last year, a series of articles titled "Fire Alarm," published in the Long Island, NY, newspaper Newsday and disseminated widely on the Internet, drew attention to spending by the region's volunteer fire departments. The series caused a stir and helped to continue the lively debate regarding career versus volunteer departments.

While the latter discussion shows no signs of dying down soon, one sidebar that can be written is that fire companies in Long Island's Nassau and Suffolk counties, as well as others throughout the Northeast, are among the best equipped and most adequately funded corps in the country. This fact readily lends itself to another comparison, based not on whether employees are salaried, but focusing on whether a fire department has sufficient financial support to provide even the most basic of emergency services.

Having started my fire service career in suburban New York, I was once a victim of "Yankee shortsightedness" in that I assumed that every fire department was at least reasonably equipped. I realized that some had more than others, as I witnessed that phenomenon fairly close to home. However, after relocating to the Midwest and the South, my horizons broadened.

In Illinois, I became acquainted with the concept of "subscription fire protection" and fire departments that depended almost totally on selling their services before a fire. It was amazing to see how many people didn't feel that fire protection was worth even a very minimal investment. This attitude placed firefighters in the unenviable position of not intervening in emergency calls at noncontributing properties. Typically, these agencies receive negative press when they "let somebody's house burn down," but the sad reality is that without some leverage, even fewer people would subscribe. Imagine the impact on the insurance industry, for example, if you only had to buy a policy after you filed a claim. While some may criticize this inaction as morally wrong, most subscription departments I am familiar with will intercede if lives are at stake.

Arriving in Alabama in the early 1990s, I joined a department that had two pieced together tankers, a second-hand mini-pumper and a single Class A engine — a 750-gpm, open-cab 1957 Mack. While certainly a classic, this 35-year-old piece was older than those I ran with two decades before. Chicken suppers, portrait photography and direct-mail campaigns were all used to augment the meager stipend we received from the county. Since then, things have changed significantly for the better, with the addition of new apparatus and new stations. However, such improvements are not universal.

In Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, the title character raises the ire of the headmaster of the orphanage by asking for another ration of gruel to ease his hunger. To co-opt a common American phrase, some of our poorer departments today don't even have a bowl to put gruel in. It's impossible to categorize each of the estimated 30,400 fire departments in the United States, but a close look at the news can help to gain perspective.

In April, www.Firehouse.com reported on a fire that destroyed the quarters and the one and only engine of Hay Valley, AL. This volunteer department provides protection to about 2,200 people and operates with an annual budget of $6,000. This is not a misprint, and I am willing to bet that there are agencies that operate on even less than that. By comparison, FDNY spends an average of $5,078 per minute. Certainly there are differences in scale, but there is obviously a minimum cost of doing business, regardless of your location.

While the volunteers' apparatus was second hand and the structure little more than a simple wooden garage, together they represented the majority of the resources of one small rural department. While the fire was obviously a tragedy, dealing with the day-to-day issues is certainly no picnic, either. In a telephone interview with Hay Valley Chief Jeff Carr, he shared some of these tribulations.

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