Volunteer FD funding at risk

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 8, 2012

Local first responders, namely volunteer fire departments, could lose funding if a proposed Constitutional Amendment fails to gain Alabama voters’ approval on Sept. 18, officials said Friday.

If passed, the amendment would allow lawmakers to move nearly $146 million each year over the next three years from the state’s oil and gas reserves to the general fund budget, helping to alleviate cuts to state programs and agencies.

The General Fund provides tax dollars to non-education agencies such as the state’s court and prison systems, the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Public Health and the state’s Medicaid program.

Additionally, the General Fund provides for food safety, and funding for rural fire departments and first responders – law enforcement, firefighters and paramedic services.

The group Keep Alabama Working said that rural fire departments will lose funding, placing property and people at great risk, with many residents in rural areas seeing a drastic increase in their homeowners insurance.

Increases in a department’s response time could affect its ISO rating, the score assigned by the Insurance Services Organization (ISO) that evaluates a fire department’s service capabilities based within its physical boundary areas. The lower the number for the department, the higher the insurance premium.

Chauncey Wood, president of the Alabama Association of Volunteer Firefighters, estimates that there are more than 1,000 volunteer fire departments across Alabama that depend on state funding to pay for necessities like fuel and vehicle insurance – including the 20 volunteer departments in Covington County that receive an annual appropriation from the state forestry commission.

“The loss of funding that volunteer fire departments use to pay for fuel and insurance will result in longer fire response times and will ultimately lead to increased homeowners and property insurance premiums for those in the fire department’s service area,” Wood said. “Due to slower response times, fires will burn out of control longer; more property damage will occur; and, most importantly, more lives will be endangered.”

Antioch Volunteer Fire Department Chief Alex Leonard said his fire department receives funding each year; however, that amount has decreased several years now.

“We use it for fuel and insurance and other things we need,” he said. “It’s not a whole lot. It’s around $1,900, but it helps us.”

But that money doesn’t go far when it costs approximately $200 in fuel to respond to a call for the department that averages 20 to 25 calls per year, he said.

Gantt Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bill Stanley said the majority of his department’s funding comes from a 3 mil ad valorem taxes collected.

“From the state, we get as a line item through the Forestry Commission between $1,000 and $1,500 a year,” he said. “It’s very, very important.”

But Stanley doesn’t think the Sept. 18 referendum is the answer to the state’s problems.

“I am a firm believer in living off of what you have,” he said. “I’m telling my guys to vote against it. I don’t think we can afford to spend the money. If we are in that desperate need of funding, the Legislature should act responsibly and raise our taxes.”

Stanley said if the referendum doesn’t pass and money from the Forestry Commission is gone, Gantt residents shouldn’t worry about the fire department closing.

“We would have to have a few more fundraisers,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. The money is a godsend, but I’ve been in the fire service for 52 years. When the need arises, we go out and start knocking on doors. In every case, the neighbors came to the rescue. I am a firm believer in that.”

Onycha Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Ernie DePrinzio said his department typically gets between $1,100 and $1,200 from the forestry commission.

“We use it for a combination of things such as additional wildland fire fighting gear and additional hoses,” he said. “This money is extremely important. Just like with all other volunteer fire departments in the area, we are very, very under funded.

“We’ve been going out actively searching for any and all grants through the government and other agencies,” he said. “Our biggest risk is that we may not be able to maintain the level of equipment and coverage. A fire truck is very expensive, and we have one that is more than 30 years old, but we would not fold. We use every penny we have, and we are extremely tight with our money.”

DePrinzio said 25 years ago before the Onycha department was established, Opp had to cover a majority of its territory, which ranges from just south of the Opp bypass to the rest area on U.S. 331. Currently, Onycha has about 15 firefighters on the roster who handle an average call count of 40 to 45 annually.

Opp Fire Department Chief Joey Williams said that his department gets the majority of its money locally, gets some 3 mill ad valorem tax money and also receives a small check from the Forestry Commission that they use for turnout gear and other necessities.

“We really don’t get that much,” he said.

Williams said having volunteer fire departments dispersed in local communities helps tremendously with response time.

“If there were no volunteer fire departments, we would have to answer to those,” he said. “It’s very important to have those. There are times, when we might not be able to answer a call if we were on another run. A lot of the calls that volunteer fire departments answer are woods fires, which can turn bad quickly.

“It keeps us from sending someone 20 or so miles and then something happening here,” he said. “The response time would be detrimental if we had to come from far away. It’s very important to us that there are volunteer fire departments.”

Stanley said that the Gantt service area covers 96 square miles, and like most volunteer fire departments, the ability for Gantt to respond to a scene depends on whether or not volunteers are working, Stanley said

“It’s strictly volunteer,” he said. “If I’m home, I do it. If I’m not, I can’t. We responded to around 70 calls last year.”

Additionally, the Department of Public Safety is looking at a 17 percent cut that would result in significant layoffs, meaning fewer troopers on the road and the increased potential for loss of life on highways.

If the amendment doesn’t pass, there will be long delays and long lines in driver’s license testing, DPS commissioner Hugh McCall said. The time required to respond to accidents will increase significantly and the ability of state troopers to aid local law enforcement will be drastically curtailed.

Andalusia Fire Chief Ethan Dorsey was out of the office Friday.