Firefighting in Hampshire County is done by volunteers, supported by taxpayers through a fire levy for more than 30 years. The levy is up for a vote again this fall.
What would happen if it fails to pass? Fire departments would begin to close, fire chiefs predict, beginning with the smallest — the ones that lack local businesses to turn to for support, and sit far off main routes where fundraising is difficult.
“Bankrupt,” says Capon Springs Fire Chief Gerald Brill, when asked what failure of the levy would mean.
Levels Fire Chief Ronald Watson’s company is threatened too. He points out homeowners and businesses will feel the pain too, in the form of “extraordinary” increases in fire insurance rates, which are based on the distance to the nearest fire station.
Fire departments depend on levy funds to help pay the bills — though they never actually see the money. The funds remain in the county clerk’s office, to which bills are submitted that must be approved by the county clerk as legitimate expenses before being paid.
A state surcharge on fire and casualty insurance policies provides some additional income to volunteer fire departments, similarly restricted in use. An annual audit assures this money also is properly spent.
The departments supplement these sources of income with their own fund-raising, though this year such activities have been curtailed or shut down entirely due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Firefighting is expensive, and the money does not go far. Chief Watson complains that “anything with fire or EMS attached to it, it’s double or triple the cost. Everything has to be up to national standards.”
The volunteers must meet the same standards as paid firefighters in wealthier government-funded fire departments. If the fire marshal catches them cutting corners, he can shut the fire department down.
The turnout gear firefighters wear is so expensive that Levels can only afford 2 new sets a year, and the standards require replacement every 10 years — or sooner, if damaged by fire. They need the best gear on the market, Chief Watson points out, adding “It’s people’s lives.”
Most volunteer fire departments rely on used vehicles — all they can afford. Just the cab of a custom truck costs $100,000, says Chief Watson, and a new 50-foot ladder truck costs $600,000-$750,000.
Even used vehicles are expensive. Capon Springs dedicates their state insurance fund money to truck payments, leaving other expenses to be covered by the levy and fund-raising.
The volunteers save money where they can. Levels saved almost $200,000 over the cost of new vehicles by refurbishing 2 used pick-up trucks, one a brush truck built from a 1998 pick-up updated with a 2013 chassis, and the other their EMS assist vehicle, outfitted to carry their vehicle extrication tool (popularly known as the “jaws of life”).
The trucks are driven a lot — responding to calls of other departments as well as to nearby fires. Firefighting takes a lot of trucks because volunteers are scarce. Some trucks arrive with just the driver, or the driver and one passenger, says Chief Watson.
Gas is a big expense. Fire truck gas mileage is in the single digits. Chief Watson laughs and says “we used to get miles to a gallon, and now it’s gallons to the mile.”
Insurance is costly too — $18,000 a year for Levels plus another $3,000 for workmen’s compensation insurance required by the state. To these expenses, add truck maintenance and servicing, maintaining and heating the fire station, staff training, and annual testing of equipment.
All they ask from the rest of us is to keep the fire levy in place, helping them pay the bills and keep the lights on.
And if the levy fails?
“Taxpayers have to understand what’s going to happen — we’re going to need paid firefighters,” Chief Watson says, though adequate financial support for the volunteers may at least delay this a while.
Still, he believes it is coming — “better be planning on it,” he says.