Fire departments incur debt to meet equipment needs

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Col. John Mogan of Tennessee's Office of Homeland Security said recently that our greatest liability when it comes to terrorism is our short memory. This is true not only in regard to terrorist threat, but also when it comes to firefighting.
   Carter County's seven volunteer fire departments burned up the roads last year, responding to home fires, medical calls, controlled burns that flamed out of control, forest fires, and the never-ending daily brush fires. Though it officially turned spring only a week ago, this year's brush fires already have begun.
   Members of Carter County Volunteer Firemen's Association were put to the test in February 2000, during the fire at North American Rayon. As devastating as that incident was, it also had a positive effect in that firefighters were made keenly aware of their limitations in respect to equipment. Donations to the fire departments increased.
   In the absence of another major fire event, it's now back to the status quo.
   State and local governments recently have had to come to grips with what the rest of us have had to do for years: living within our budgets and cutting out steak when we can only afford hamburger. There is no safety net for local agencies which often suffer when it's time to trim the fat.
   Yet upon glancing around, it seems that all of the local fire departments are adding new equipment. How is this possible? The answer: Just like most of the rest of us, they have gone in debt.
   David Nichols, president of the fire association, said, "All of these improvements that we have made have been financed. Cutting our funding is out of the question. If that happens, we're bankrupt."
   Volunteer fire departments also have seen a decrease in public donations, perhaps because as businesses leave town, locals lose their jobs; and those few bucks generally dropped into fire department coffers dry up.
   "The economy's down and we'll do our best to hold down our costs to the county while they go through whatever restructuring they have to, to get back on strong financial footing," Nichols said, "but at some point in time, we're going to have to have an increase in funding."
   Last year, the fire association made a cash outlay for a third mountaintop repeater to improve radio communications in remote areas. The Carter County Rescue Squad, which switches over to the fire channel during times of equipment failure, assisted with the purchase.
   "One of the major things that's happened, as we told people would happen when the new engines were purchased, is that would allow us to make some major improvements in tanker areas," Nichols said.
   "Elk Mills has purchased another 3,000-gallon tank to put on a tandem truck that was donated to them; all they had to buy for it was the tank. They will have 15,000 gallons of water available just in tankers. At the same time, they have purchased a new 4-wheel-drive rapid-response brush-type unit that's being built. It's all being financed," he said.
   Stoney Creek Volunteer Fire Department recently had two 3,000-gallon tandem tankers delivered. Roan Mountain also acquired another tanker, bringing its number to two, and have acquired a forest service engine which is now stationed at Whitehead Hill. Though not completely outfitted, the engine is operable and available to run fire calls.
   Watauga has a new engine on order, according to Nichols. "The one they had in Biltmore finally just gave up. That was not unexpected. Everybody knew that was going to happen. Watauga will have two very fine engines very shortly. That also was financed," he said. Watauga also received a grant through the City of Watauga which will be used to purchase a new brush truck and some much-needed equipment, Nichols said.
   "Both Watauga and Central acquired four-wheel drive rapid-response units that they mainly use for helping fight brush fires and running medical calls. Hampton has acquired a chassis in preparation of building a tanker on it to replace one of their old tankers.
   "Watauga became the seventh and final one of the volunteer fire departments to sign on to the medical response program. Their training is almost complete and then they will be dispatched simultaneously with an ambulance on emergency traffic," he said.
   West Carter, Central, Stoney Creek and Elk Mills currently have automated external defibrillators at their stations and, barring problems, the other three stations will be equipped this coming year.
   The biggest challenge for the fire association is providing training for the approximately 210 volunteer firemen countywide.
   "We have almost completed all of the training that can be done at the individual fire department level. What's left is the sophisticated-type training that we need to have that is taught at the various fire academies around," Nichols said. "The problem with that is, how do you get the firemen off from work so they can attend these classes that are usually a week long?
   "Normally employers are quite happy to let the people have the time off, but they don't pay them. They have to have money for their families to live."
   Nichols said that probably will be one of the next major issues the fire association will work on. Grant money is available for tuition, "but there are just no grants to pay the person's salary while he's off work taking this training. We have to do the best we can, teaching on nights and weekends, but some of the classes just can't be done that way."
   Homeland Security's Col. Mogan said first-responders, such as firefighters, will be required to take special training associated with combating terrorism.
   "If there are new detection devices, or decontamination devices, new communications equipment, new personal protective gear -- there's a certain amount of familiarization training associated with that. The increased threat of bioterrorism adds a whole new consideration to first-responders. They've been trained on ... the chemical, the HazMat stuff -- but with the bioterrorism threat being more significant now, it just stands to reason that we would focus more training emphasis in that area for our first responders," he said.
   According to Nichols, firefighters will be going over some of the standard training this year: incident command, bloodbourne pathogens and a mandatory four-hour refresher course on hazardous material response.
   "We need additional folks trained at the hazardous material technician level, which is at least a week-long class, Monday through Friday. There are being developed some weapons of mass destruction-type classes. The smaller ones will be able to be taught on nights on weekends, but some of the more sophisticated ones dealing with explosives, bioterrorism and chemical weapons are going to require some extended classroom time and it's not something we can do here locally at the departments."
   Each local fire department is applying for a portion of $360 million in federal grant money. However, they are competing with more than 40,000 fire departments nationwide for their share of the pie.
   Local departments are hoping to lower their ISO (Insurance Service Organization) rating this year, translating to savings on homeowner insurance. West Carter, Central and Stoney Creek are rated 7; the rest are rated 9. Ten means no fire protection and 1 is the best fire protection available, Nichols said.