Blog: Award: Community buy-in is key for volunteer firefighters (8/29/22)

Chief Lee Price (left) demonstrates how to open a car hood with Madison Township firefighters during the Volunteer Service Extrication Training held Saturday. (Banner Graphic/SELVIA BRAND)

Published as a column for the Tuesday, August 30, 2022 edition of the Banner Graphic.

An almost absolute feeling in the fire service is that volunteers are – and have been – a dying breed.

For Lee Price, longtime Madison Township volunteer fire chief, the problem is twofold: young people don’t want to volunteer and the rest are getting older.

What many may not fully understand is that a lot of it comes down to money. It’s not being cynical. All fire departments like ours are struggling with capital.

In a recent interview, Larry Curl, chief lobbyist for the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association, laid the groundwork as he sees it: volunteer fire departments need to improve their staffing, funding and training in general.

According to Curl, there are about 13,000 volunteer firefighters in Indiana, up from 17,000 just a few years ago. While this could be due to both older volunteers retiring or dying and younger volunteers exiting, this is a significant reduction.

Specifically, Curl says the volunteer fire department really isn’t free. It costs a lot to run voluntary services, including our taxes.

Locally, each of the volunteer departments received $50,000 of the county fund allocation through the American Rescue Plan Act. That’s a lot of money, right?

The ARPA money Madison Township VFD has received so far has been spent on new turnout equipment for approximately $21,000. Meanwhile, $12,000 was spent on new garage doors for the station to improve heating and cooling costs.

The department typically pays $1,600 a year to keep a tank full of fuel at its station. Depending on the weather, it’s $750 a month during the winter to heat the building with propane gas. Also include electricity and internet for race reports, record keeping and training.

Madison Township VFD will receive $22,500 per year under a contract with the township, of which approximately $10,000 will go towards insurance and general maintenance. He also gets an annual reduction of $9 to $10,000 to cover races at Lincoln Park Speedway.

Voluntary services may obtain disbursement from a cumulative fund by the township they serve. This covers various expenses, including pump testing, repairs, and purchases that are approved by the township trustee. Nevertheless, it can be completely used.

These funds are not, but should not be, equal at all levels. The Cloverdale Township Volunteer Fire Department covers a large area as well as incidents on Interstate 70. The Madison Township VFD and other volunteer services will be making significantly fewer trips per month.

“People can see why fire departments are struggling as a whole,” Price told me recently about the costs. “We all have the same needs. You also need to think about the runtime volumes they perform.

(All volunteer department annual financial reports can be viewed on Indiana Gateway.)

Volunteers are no different from career firefighters in essence. Their equipment and apparatus, as well as their conduct on the fire ground, must be subject to the same standards.

Equipment must be replaced every 10 years, and a firefighter’s full gear, including helmet, gloves, Nomex, jacket, pants and boots, costs $4-5,000. Meanwhile, the air packs, at $5,000 each, must be replaced every 15 years. However, these purchases may be staggered.

Even so, Price opines that he doesn’t need high-tech equipment like battery-powered extrication tools or an aerial truck. This is because they are not essential in the jurisdiction of Madison Township.

In accordance with these standards, voluntary departments naturally struggle to obtain funding and buy-in from communities. Not all are their own entities and as such each will have its own dynamic.

Ultimately, fundraising remains vital for all volunteer departments. But community support is lacking for some efforts while a boon for others.

Events like Fillmore VFD’s Chicken BBQ and Cloverdale Township VFD’s Pancake Breakfast bring in significant dollars. But all of that revenue goes directly into the ongoing maintenance of their services.

Madison Township VFD stopped having monthly breakfasts because the small income was not justifiable. Along the same lines, members will invest their own money in the upkeep of the department.

“There are taxpayers out there who think, ‘Well, all you do is go fire-fighting,'” Price recounted. Looking strictly at government funding, taxes alone don’t go that far for fire protection.

It can hit the elephant in the room, and it can be attitudinal because it’s always financial. For Price, it’s about helping those who come to help volunteer services, including potential recruits.

One idea is that we should view our fire related taxes as investments. As Price said, to say his department needs a new engine is to want to make sure he can take care of the community. He relies on those who live in Madison Township for their contribution.

Ultimately, the reality with volunteer memberships as they exist is that most of my age don’t want to enter the fire department without compensation. Going through 200-300 hours of training makes it more of a diversion.

Seeing this up close as I have on the fires and wrecks, I have tremendous respect for our firefighters and what they do. Otherwise, Price’s message is that people can learn about and contact their local fire departments.

Although fire service volunteering can be disastrous, I and Price believe it can be revived. It is possible with our firefighters educating the public on what it takes.

Where this can be a priority, perhaps more would get involved. It’s more about public relations than publicity.

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