Every school, church, and conservation group seems to be selling something. Most of us have to pick and choose who gets our donations or go broke on cheesecakes and meat raffles. And yet, many rural emergency services agencies cannot operate without fundraisers.

When it’s hard to find volunteers anyway, departments struggle to maintain a precarious balance: How many Lenten fish fries and pancake breakfasts can you ask your people to work before pushback from families and employers impacts availability for calls and trainings? But if you don’t do the fundraising, how do you pay for equipment needed to keep those people safe on a job for which they receive no pay?

If you don’t know where public safety funding comes from in your rural area or what things cost, you are not alone. And honestly, I get it. Just shopping for a new mattress this winter gave me a bad case of sticker shock. Buying a dozen eggs practically requires access to an automatic external defibrillator. And those are small potatoes compared to the cost of things used in fighting fires.

For example, my rural volunteer fire department just purchased a new Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). Those air packs include a frame that holds a pressurized cylinder containing breathable air, a mouthpiece and regulator, and a PASS device that sounds an alert if a firefighter stops moving. The components must comply with NFPA standards. Really, that’s a good thing when you’re dealing with extreme heat, toxic gasses, and potential impacts from debris and the business end of a fire hose. Those standards include retire-by timelines and, in some cases, periodic testing. 

Some of the cylinders we had in service were approaching retirement, others still had years of useful life. But we wanted to change from cylinders rated for 30 minutes of air to 45 minutes to give firefighters more time to work before having to switch bottles. In a rural area where it takes time for extra manpower and equipment from mutual aid partners to arrive at a fire scene, those extra minutes make a difference. Air packs are also used on carbon monoxide calls and in other situations. We wanted all cylinders and air packs to be interchangeable to avoid any potential for confusion. So we decided to replace everything at once. 

It wasn’t cheap. Each new 45-minute pack with cylinder was $7,500, and spare bottles were $900 each. The new cylinders expire in 30 years. We sold the 30-minute cylinders that still had years of useful life to another department, and the packs that fit those 30-minute bottles will be sold as well. 

It took two years of fundraising to raise the $50,000 needed to put that new equipment into service. Some of the money came from grants (bless the volunteers who write grant applications for rural fire departments). We held fundraisers on 4th of July and Labor Day weekends each year (bless the families who understand why we disappear on holidays). Members also volunteered at other local events that donate profits to the organizations that work (bless them for that). We hold a raffle for cash prizes each year (bless the people who buy tickets, and those who just send checks). 

It all adds up. It also takes a toll. When unpaid volunteers spend so much time fundraising, they have less time available for training, equipment checks, and other tasks – including paperwork, without which you don’t get funding.

Our communities need us to be trained, equipped, and ready to respond. My department serves 155 square miles in two municipalities. That includes manufacturing facilities, hospitality and tourism establishments, farms, churches, church and Scout camps, public lands and highways, and about 450 rural households. What those households pay for homeowners insurance is directly related to the readiness and reliability of the fire department that serves them. That’s true in other rural areas, as well. 

Homeowners’ insurance rates factor in ISO ratings. Those are determined by the Insurance Services Office, which assigns fire departments a score between 1 and 10. A score of 1 is the safest bet that an insurance company won’t have to pay out on fire claims. Any area that is more than five driving miles from the nearest fire station is automatically rated a 10. 

Many rural homeowners know they pay more for otherwise comparable insurance, but not necessarily why. Fifty percent of an ISO rating is based on water supply, the 911 system, and community risk reduction programs. The other 50% reflects the quality of the fire department’s equipment and training – in other words, its readiness to respond in a timely and effective manner.

Like the rural households they serve, rural volunteer firefighters often pay a premium for homeowners insurance based on where they live. But they show up to flip flapjacks to pay for NFPA-compliant PPE and other equipment. operating and training expenses that aren’t covered by their municipalities. In my area, the portion of annual revenues municipalities allocate to fire departments might cover what it costs to outfit one new firefighter in PPE and provide an air pack and a radio. The rest of the budget? Fundraising. 

Some departments have separate organizations to conduct their fundraising and segregate the monies raised from municipal coffers. You hear nightmare stories about municipalities that raid fire department funds to pay for other things like road maintenance equipment. When I hear those stories, I can’t help but imagine the impact of those shenanigans. Imagine the sticker shock when a municipality loses its volunteer fire department and has to contract public safety services from another agency. Imagine the distance from which help might have to come, the longer response times, and the increased homeowners’ insurance premiums. 

Volunteer fire departments need all kinds of help, and it doesn’t all involve training to put on an air pack and enter burning structures. Sometimes it’s helping sell food and beverages or raffle tickets at community events (bless those folks). Sometimes it’s putting a little extra in the bucket or boot at fire department fundraisers (bless you for that). And sometimes it’s stepping up to say, “My insurance company/credit union/family foundation has grant money available, so what do you need, and can I help you write the grant proposal?” 

Next time your volunteer fire department hosts an open house, get pictures of the kids or grandkids with the shiny fire trucks, for sure. But also ask, how old is that truck? If you had to replace it, what would that cost? And what would it take to raise that money? Sticker shock about PPE and other equipment pales in comparison to fire apparatus. 

Small volunteer fire departments are used to stretching dollars every way they can. In my department, all but one of our trucks were bought used. Our engine was bought new because that was the only way to get one small enough to fit in the station, with a couple of inches of clearance between the mirrors and the door frame. It’s 15 years old. 

There’s always something that needs to be replaced because of age, incompatibility, changing NFPA standards, or other reasons. You can’t put a new 5-foot 130-pound firefighter in the gear that belonged to the 6-foot 250-pound firefighter who retired. And we need those new firefighters.

But we also need people brave enough to look at price tags and grant applications squarely, swallow their sticker shock, and say, “How can I help?”

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin, where she is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department. 

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