The Haves & Have-Nots

Oct. 1, 2006
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 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, 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.

"As a chief of a small department that has limited funding, it is hard to decide how to best protect your members and community," Carr said. "Out of our budget, we spend $3,460 on insurance, $385 on radio dues, and then we have gas for heating and the power bill that keeps changing. After all of that, we have the cost of fuel to operate the equipment. This leaves very little to spend on anything else. There is no way that we can even stay close to the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) standards on equipment. Our cost for one SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) that meets the latest requirements is $2,400; then the gear is roughly $1,200 per set."

Carr continued, "There is no way a department with a small budget can comply with all the rules. I know people will say that we should have fund raisers, and we do. If we have a great year, we may have an extra $1,200 to spend, but with fuel going up we will not have that. Even with our department being so small, we have always pitched in, sometimes out of our own pockets, to help other departments and people in need. We have always given from our hearts to help."

Unfortunately, Carr's troubles are not unique. The nearby Oakman Volunteer Fire Department is also in serious financial shape. Working with an annual income of $8,000 — a whopping 33% increase over their neighbors in Hay Valley — the department needs $10,000 to $12,000 just to keep its apparatus in service.

Increased costs of operating aging rigs and safety issues surrounding homemade repairs are all part of being a have-not. In 2003, an investigation by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) into a tanker rollover that resulted in a firefighter fatality generated several recommendations, including state pre-inspection of military vehicles donated to the fire service. These vehicles are often converted to tankers or brush trucks, and dot the rural landscape. Whether they meet applicable safety standards is often up to those who build them.

This is in stark contrast to those who fall among the "haves." In researching this article, I heard from members of many fire departments that place themselves in the "haves" category. The Simsbury, CT, Volunteer Fire Company, for example, has eight paid employees, including a mechanic, and a well-constructed website that is updated frequently. In contrast, some of the "have-nots" reported having no Internet access and rely on neighboring agencies to provide them with hand-me-down copies of Firehouse® Magazine.

The Pasadena, TX, Fire Department claims to be the largest municipal volunteer fire department in the country. And, with 200 members and more than 40 pieces of apparatus, it may well be. The department's combined annual budget for fire suppression and fire prevention activities exceeds $4 million. Stafford, near Houston, utilizes a combination force and an operating fund in the neighborhood of $1 million to respond to 2,300 calls per year. As is often the case, however, many departments properly classify themselves as being somewhere in the middle.

The Reidland-Farley Fire Protection District near Paducah, KY, answers 600 to 700 alarms annually and is feeling growing pains. Last year, this growth resulted in the construction of a new station with an apparatus bay almost as large as the entire facility that it was designed to replace. But progress does not come cheaply. The cost of the building is approximately $1.6 million. According to Chief Richard Tapp, the project was financed through a "mortgage with Paducah Bank, a local institution who was very competitive with their package. The district had saved and planned for several years and this was part of a 10-year plan. The balance was cash available on hand; we are tax based as a Special Fire Taxing District."

For those not having taxation authority, grants offer some relief. While grant programs often seem to benefit the "haves" and cannot hope to completely erase the current fiscal and preparedness disparity, a look at the Department of Homeland Security report for the 2004 Assistance to Firefighters Program seems to indicate that funding is on target. Two-thirds of all applications received came from purely volunteer agencies, and 96% came from communities having 50,000 or less population. More importantly, 84% of approved applications came from rural areas.

As long as fire protection is organized on a local level, there are going to be differences in training, funding and other key measurables. And, as long as fire protection is provided by firefighters, this organization is not about to quickly change. Until some of the existing disparities can be diminished another quote from Dickens may well be in order. When looking at the "haves" and the "have-nots," it could be easily said that, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." And both statements would equally hold true.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is executive director of the Knox County, TN, Emergency Communications District. He is an ex-chief of the Valley Cottage, NY, Fire Department, ex-deputy chief of the Harvest, AL, Volunteer Fire Department and a former training officer for the Savoy, IL, Fire Department. Furey is past president of the Tennessee chapter of the Association of Public safety Communications Officials (APCO) and former chair of the APCO Homeland Security Task Force. He also was conference chair for the 2002 APCO International Conference in Nashville.

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