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Better support for fire departments needed

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By John Barnhart

    Last month Jack Jones, the county’s director of fire and rescue, reminded the Bedford County Board of Supervisors how much it costs to equip a fire department.
    Jones was asking for funds for turn-out suits, the coats and pants firefighters wear. One item that he presented was a diagram showing how much it costs to equip a firefighter, including the air packs that allow them to go into a smoke-filled building. The total cost came to $11,088.
    Of course a fire department doesn’t need enough air packs (which accounts for nearly half of the $11,088 figure) for every firefighter as everyone isn’t going inside a burning structure at the same time. But this goes to show the kind of costs that our local volunteer fire departments face.
    Jones gave the cost of replacing a pumper at $500,000. That’s the cost of the truck and doesn’t include all the equipment that the truck carries. These trucks don’t last forever, either and some departments, like Bedford and Forest, put a lot of wear on their trucks because they serve areas with a high population density. Forest runs between 500 and 600 calls a year, and Bedford runs even more. Don’t forget that these folks run on more than structure fires. Firefighters are the ones who show up with the equipment, often called the “Jaws of Life,” necessary to cut a smashed car open so that the rescue squad that can get the occupants out without the risk of inflicting additional injury
    Jones estimated that volunteer fire departments, on the average, realize about $2 of profit from each serving they sell at a chicken dinner. A fire department would have to sell a quarter of a million servings to come up with the  kind of money it would take to replace a pumper.
    There are other costs.
    Recently Forest got a $5,000 grant from Fireman’s Fund Insurance which it will use to buy fire hydrant manifolds which make hooking up multiple trucks to a hydrant faster. These replaced some existing manifolds that have just worn out. 
    The department is also in the process raising money to complete the bunk room section of its new firehouse. This will allow firefighters to stay overnight, thus improving response time, particularly during major episodes of nasty weather, like last year’s derecho. The department has members who would be willing to pull an all-nighter at the station if they had a place to sleep. Finishing all the interior work on the firehouse will cost $500,000. The members hold a number of fundraisers, and one event, called the Fireman’s 5K, is scheduled for Aug. 24. For more information on that, go to www.forestco5.com and click on “Fireman’s 5K” on the sidebar that runs down the left side of the page. But even a successful run will only raise a small portion of what this all costs.
    I think all of this shows that it’s time for the Bedford County Board of Supervisors to begin doing more to fund the county’s 12 volunteer fire departments. Chicken dinners, 5K races with a $25 entry fee and the occasional grant certainly help. But these efforts really don’t generate the kind of money that it takes to provide the equipment the need to do the job.
    Let’s not ever forget that these firefighters are all volunteers. This saves Bedford County taxpayers a huge amount of money. The starting salary for firefighters in Lynchburg is $35,000 per year. This does not count the cost of benefits such as payments into the Virginia Retirement System. You can imagine what this would do to the county’s tax rates if Bedford County had to staff 12 fire departments with paid firefighters.
    These volunteer firefighters perform a great service for the county, doing a dangerous job without getting paid for it.  In light of this, it seems reasonable that more taxpayer funding be allocated for fire department equipment purchases so that these volunteers can do their unpaid jobs efficiently and safely.