By Miles Layton and Steve Barrett – photo by Amanda Steen – Herald-Standard
When a fire breaks out, people expect a prompt response from the area men and women who, almost always, are volunteers that risk their lives.
But what many don’t consider is the cost to the departments, which, oftentimes, get by financially by selling hoagies, holding car washes, or spaghetti dinners, and selling tickets to gun or cash bashes.
First Assistant Chief George Matis at Republic Volunteer Fire Department in Fayette County said fundraising in these lean times is a challenge.
“It’s becoming more difficult to pay for everything, so we have to have fundraiser after fundraiser,” he said. “We have to work, work, work to get everything we need. But we have to do it to get the most professional and provide the best service that we can.”
Matis said the firefighting gear is expensive. For example, he said, one air pack, which is an essential part of firefighter’s gear, costs $8,000; special fire resistant pants and a jacket cost more than $2,300; portable radios — $1,300 to $3,500 each. Matis said a fire department can pay upwards of $500,000 for a truck.
Masontown Fire Chief Chuck Corcoran said fundraising is a year-round job. Like many other fire departments, he said, Masontown employs bingo or fundraising bashes for donations needed to pay for the company’s needs. Corcoran said it costs more than $4,000 to put someone in a fire suit – and that figure does not include the boots or the helmet. He said many fire departments pay for the insurance needed to cover firefighters, buildings and trucks.
“Everything is tough in times like these, but we’re holding out,” he said. “We have to do fundraising year round to keep our gear up, service it. That can be expensive.”
Bingo games used to be a popular fundraiser for the volunteer fire company in Rices Landing, Greene County — but that fund stream dried up because people stopped coming.
“When casinos came to Washington and Fayette counties, it really hurt our bingo fundraisers,” said Bill Kozich, chief of the borough’s volunteer department. “So, we had to come up with other initiatives.”
He said many people are unaware of the expenses that volunteer fire departments accrue.
Both Kozich and Center Township Volunteer Fire Chief Charlie Jones said their fire companies rely on grants, a stipend from the county commissioners and other funding streams to get through the tough times.
But not all fire companies struggle.
Jeff Marshall, chief of the Waynesburg-Franklin Township Fire Company, said the company currently has 11 fire trucks and an annual budget of approximately $160,000. The majority of the funds available in the budget come from a fire tax that was set up years ago by former administrators of the fire company.
“The fire tax was initiated in municipalities where portions of the tax are placed in the budget for the fire company,” he explained. “The money in the annual budget is used to pay for a large number of expenses, including truck payments, fuel costs, training, equipment, building maintenance and more.”
Marshall said the volunteers engage in more than 200 hours of training each year.
Other funding streams that make up the annual budget include donations from various local businesses and organizations and from Waynesburg University.
The fire company also applies all available grants and state loan programs that offer low-interest loans that can be used for the purchase of equipment and trucks. They also hold fundraisers.
“We’re in good shape,” Marshall said. “We also deeply appreciate the support that we receive through the businesses and organizations and the university. They are a big asset for us.”
Despite financial struggles, volunteer fire fighters are a dedicated group who work hard to protect their communities, area representatives said.
Farmington’s Assistant Fire Chief Eric Baker said companies continue to push forward with fundraisers to effectively do their volunteer jobs.
“In this economy, everybody has to be on their p’s and q’s,” he said. “We have to do a lot of fundraising to buy the best equipment to serve our community.”