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Spotlight: Ky. volunteer fire departments 'center of community'

One department is 100 percent funded by dedicated tax revenue, others struggle to make ends meet

By Monica Spees
The Daily News

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. —There aren't many situations in which a farmer, an electrician and an IT guy can band together for the same cause, but they do at Franklin-Simpson Fire & Rescue.

With about 20 volunteers at the department, there is a diverse group of men who split their time between full-time jobs and responding to fires, car wrecks and other emergencies.

Because the city and county combined their fire departments in 2006, the agency is the sole provider of protection throughout the city and county, making its area of response substantial. This match-up also gives the department a mix between paid and unpaid workers. There are six paid positions at Franklin-Simpson Fire & Rescue.

Despite the wide coverage, there are advantages to having a unique combination of a city-county response team. Franklin-Simpson Fire & Rescue, unlike many volunteer fire departments in the region, is funded completely through general tax revenues of Franklin and Simpson County. This is financially beneficial to the department, according to Chief Mark Halcomb.

"Because we're funded 100 percent through general tax revenue, we have a lot of current" equipment, Halcomb said. "We're frugal, we spend our money wisely. But what we need, we have."

Having sufficient funds negates the need for donations or fundraisers for Franklin-Simpson's workers, who go out on about 380 calls annually, excluding medical responses because the department does not operate a medical first response program. While up-to-date equipment is great, Halcomb said it's all "about the guys who make up this group."

"It's a challenging job that everybody who has entered into it has done so because they want to," Halcomb said. "The return to the individual is minimal ... but the feeling (from making a difference) is rewarding."

Most volunteer fire departments in the region, however, are not fully funded by tax dollars and are staffed by only volunteers and funded through voluntary dues and the generosity of others.

Bob Skipper has been chief of the Woodburn Volunteer Fire Department for six years and is director of media relations at Western Kentucky University. He said he and his fellow volunteers each have a special reason for giving their time to the department.

"It's almost like a second job, we just don't get paid for it," Skipper said. "Most of us do it out of a sense of community. I've been the recipient of the help before, and I understand what it means, so I like to give back."

Several years ago, a fire started in Skipper's barn. Because "some of the guys" were at the station, they were able to keep the fire from causing much damage, Skipper said.

In order to respond to scenes such as the Woodburn Baptist Church fire and Skipper's barn fire, as well as car accidents, heart attacks and other incidents, the volunteer fire department has to maintain equipment — that can sometimes be challenging to fund.

Most paid fire departments are funded by a city on a tax basis, Skipper said. The Woodburn VFD, because it does not operate on a dedicated tax basis, receives funds through dues on county property tax bills, Skipper said. Dues in Warren County are voluntary, meaning residents don't have to pay dues if they don't want to.

The money the volunteer fire department gets is divided among needs for fuel, equipment maintenance and equipment upgrades, such as two new fire engines, or pumpers, a 75-foot ladder truck and expansion of Station No. 2 on Nashville Road. As the station is designed right now, the entryway, built about 20 years ago, is about two feet too low for newer trucks.

Although Warren Fiscal Court recently approved an increase in dues for the volunteer fire department, it has also recently taken cuts from the county's contribution to the budget, creating a funding obstacle.

A new engine could cost $300,000, while a used one may cost about $150,000. A ladder truck could run the department as much as $500,000. Skipper said he is still unsure of what the station expansion might cost.

For the past couple of years, Skipper said, the department has spent what it has taken in. Right now, prioritizing is key.

"Once we get the station expansion done, then we'll have to look at financing and see what else we can do," Skipper said.

Even with funding challenges that have become goals, the Woodburn VFD continues to make a difference. Woodburn Baptist Church owes a lot to the Woodburn Volunteer Fire Department, said pastor Tim Harris.

"They saved our building," Harris said.

In April 2006, lightning started a fire in the church's attic. The building at that time was practically brand new. Although the fire could've been devastating, Woodburn VFD arrived on the scene quickly and minimized the damage.

"It's pretty unbelievable what they did and what they had to fight," Harris said.

The volunteers carried out the grand piano and the pews, and the church didn't lose any items it couldn't replace.

"It's great to have people show up who are trained and know what to do," Harris said.

Because the congregation knows the volunteers as fellow church members and neighbors, they appreciate the volunteers on several levels.

"We try to remember these guys because they remember us," Harris said. "I pray that they never have to come to any emergency in our building at any time ... but they're just amazing."

Members of the congregation sometimes provide meals for the volunteers as a gesture of thanks when the church hosts a space for a VFD meeting.

Skipper said the gratitude from Woodburn Baptist Church is the kind of thing that motivates volunteers to keep going, no matter how stressful or time-consuming the volunteer job can be.

"We provide a service that you hope nobody ever needs," Skipper said in his WKU office Tuesday.

Mitchell Covington, Meador VFD chief for four years and pastor at Scottsville Church of Christ, said his department is funded through a county tax and has also received state funding for equipment.

"We're one of the older (volunteer fire departments) in the county, so we don't have as much debt as some of the others do," Covington said. "(We've) got to really budget (our) money wisely."

Covington's department received a grant from the state to pay half of the expense of a thermal imaging camera, which can be beneficial when fighting fires. Meador VFD paid the other half. The state also gave money to go toward the department paying off one of its trucks.

However, the department still has needs that can't be met right now because of finances. For instance, about five of the department's air packs need replacing.

Whatever challenges face volunteer fire departments in the area, Skipper and Covington hold fast to the reason the departments exist.

For Skipper, the "brotherhood" among the volunteers is inspiring.

"We're always willing to help each other out when needed, and I think that camaraderie helps offset the wear and tear that this can cause on you," Skipper said.

Halcomb said he is always happy to see cooperation not only among a department's workers, but also the fire departments and volunteer fire departments around the region.

"Our being predominantly volunteer (in Franklin-Simpson), we rely on assistance from other fire departments," Halcomb said. "We maintain very positive relations with those departments. That will continue."

Covington, like Skipper, said he feels service is a desired obligation.

"My philosophy is I'm a part of the community, I should give back to the community," Covington said.

For people like Tim Harris, having a volunteer fire department nearby is a blessing because it's more than just a department — it's a "center of the community."

"We pray that they never have to fight fires, but to continue to bring us together like that," Harris said.


(c)2013 the Daily News (Bowling Green, Ky.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services



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