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Volunteer fire departments fighting for full funding

Volunteer fire departments fighting for full funding

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The four volunteer fire departments in Brazos County respond to 18 to 40 calls on average each month, all efforts made while most these firefighters also work full-time jobs and often have to use their own money to pay for equipment and training. 

That's why many firefighters across the state are hoping the Texas Legislature reconsiders how it funds rural volunteer departments. Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, officially made that request Friday, asking Gov. Rick Perry to take up the issue during the special session, which has two weeks remaining.

"People need to understand the personal sacrifice that these folks make away from their families, away from home to do this," said Brazos County Pct. 4 Volunteer Fire Department Chief Joe Ondrasek, who estimates his precinct spent about $130,000 last year to pay for insurance, fuel, equipment and other costs. The bare-bones budget is nothing new to Ondrasek; he's been chief for the volunteers for 21 years while also serving full time with the Bryan Fire Department.

Just over 85 percent of the 1,430-plus registered fire departments in Texas are mostly staffed by volunteers, with a few exceptions, according to FEMA.

These departments depend on the states's Rural Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program for grant money to pay for training and other requirements needed to maintain status as a registered unit.

"You would be hard-pressed to look at our volunteer fire department and look at how modern our equipment and training is compared to where we've been in the past and not give lots of credit to state funds," Pct. 3 Fire Chief Gerald Burnett said.

Texas volunteer fire departments could see an increase in state assistance funds next year from $7 million to more than $12 million, but some said that still won't be enough. Too, it's not what originally was promised by the Legislature.

"[The fund] was set aside to assist volunteer firefighters in the state, and that is the purpose it should be used solely for," District 2 Chief Merrie Noak said. "We are able to maintain operation, but there are other departments that do not receive funding from the county and run solely on fundraising efforts. Those monies are what keep them in business and able to provide services."

 Firefighter funds diverted

When the assistance fund was created in 2001, it set aside money raised through fees assessed to property insurance companies. By 2007, the fee, which was bringing in about $15 million for the fund, was doubled by lawmakers.

Roughly $23 million went to the volunteer firefighter assistance fund each year, until the recession prompted lawmakers to make cuts across the board in 2011, according to Tom Boggus, director of the Texas A&M Forest Service, the agency that oversees the fund.

Although the state receives money for the fund, it only allocates less than half -- $7 million -- while diverting the rest to the general fund to balance the budget.

While the cities of College Station and Bryan fire departments work with budgets of more than $10 million, the county's volunteer fire departments -- which have fewer homes and businesses in their precincts -- have budgets in the $100,000 range.

"We should be funded for service in the $400,000 range when you look at managing trucks and stations, and that's not paying for people," Ondrasek said. "A few years back we did a cost analysis on the value of a volunteer fire department, and the value of what our department provides is over $1 million a year when you talk about personnel and man-hours and things like that."

The four volunteer departments in Brazos County receive funds from their designated emergency service district through property taxes and $29,000 from the county. Any other funds are earned through grants or donations, which most Brazos County volunteer departments no longer rely on.

Most department chiefs said they had given up on big fundraisers because they cost more money than the departments were raising. Instead, the departments send out newsletters asking for donations. For example, District 2 Volunteer Fire Department used to raise $10,000 to $15,000 in donations annually in the late 1980s and '90s; now it sees $4,000 to $6,000 a year.

"$4,000 is $4,000," Noak said. "It's money that can be used, but we can't rely on it every year."

 Forest Service helps out

While the department chiefs said they appreciate the state funding and donations, the total doesn't come close to what they need, not when a new fire truck can cost more than $350,000 and the firefighters are working with equipment that's sometimes more than 20 years old, as is the case with one of the Precinct 4 fire trucks.

"It's not a hazard yet," Noak said of her department's older equipment. "Could it be in the future? Yes, both to our firefighters and citizens, and then we couldn't leave the equipment in service."

The Texas Forest Service is tasked with sifting through the requests made by volunteers and offering assistance to fire departments with 20 or fewer paid personnel.

"Volunteer fire departments are the 'front line' defense in Texas and we do whatever we can to support them and build their capacity to protect Texas and Texans," Boggus said.

The Forest Service has received more than 29,000 grant requests totaling $430 million since 2002 and approved almost 22,000 of those requests worth $167 million. Those include grants for fire trucks, protective clothing, training tuitions and other equipment.

While the allotted funds are not at the level they once were, Boggus sees that changing in the next few years.

The Legislature passed a bill in May amending the use of the 9-1-1 service fees. Once 9-1-1 upgrades and equipment replacements are made, the remaining funds could be transferred to the volunteer fire department assistance fund.

"If you're a volunteer fire department, you wanted to see it restored to full funding, but the Legislature not only took care of them now but also took care of them in the future with the 9-1-1 fund getting moved," Boggus said. "It's good now and even better in the future."

While the Forest Service forecasts a less heavy than normal wildfire season in Texas, the Brazos County volunteer fire departments will continue training and recruiting volunteers to respond to area emergencies.

"We always need more volunteers, and you don't have to be a firefighter," South Brazos County Fire Chief Chet Barker said. "There's always some kind of job that we need help with."

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