Homeland Security Funds Boost Rural Fire Departments

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) -- Volunteer fire departments should be tapping federal homeland security money and other grants and using state-provided training, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal's office said.

Paula Wade said the office is ``very aware of the challenges facing volunteer fire departments, and we are mobilizing in this office to do something about that.''

Last year, fire departments in Tennessee received almost $20 million in fire grants, according to Kevin Lauer, author of a recent report known as the Tennessee Fire Handbook.

Lauer said local fire departments received virtually no grant money five years ago.

Tennessee recorded 104 fire deaths in 2002, the ninth highest state total in the United States after ranking second highest nationally with 122 deaths a year earlier.

The report shows that many departments, especially volunteer operations that make up about 75 percent of the fire service, are underequipped, understaffed and lack training.

In Sequatchie County, Lone Oak Volunteer Fire Department chief Will Zimmerman said his firefighters were using equipment handed down from other departments until he applied for a grant last year.

Zimmerman said federal money paid for self-contained breathing apparatus, called an SCBA by firefighters, and he used a $140,000 grant for a tanker.

``That makes it easier to recruit, with new turnout gear and modern SCBAs,'' Zimmerman said. ``I cannot say we're underequipped at this point, thanks to the ... grant.''

Wade said getting new volunteers is a challenge for departments.

The fire marshal's office does not require training for volunteers but the state fire academy in Bell Buckle offers a basic 80-hour firefighting course for $92, according to its catalog.

``The state has basically subsidized the cost of fire academy training,'' Wade said. ``We're making it affordable to local communities.''

Lauer, who works for the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service, said departments should develop goals, such as lowering a community's fire insurance rating.

He said ``people are more likely to volunteer with a quality organization.''

Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press