Ala. bill would allow volunteer FDs to use tax money to buy water, Gatorade
The measure would remove restrictions on mileage reimbursements and on buying electrolyte drinks and kitchen equipment
MOBILE, Ala. — Whenever there is a tragic crash on Interstate 10 west of Mobile, the Grand Bay Volunteer Fire Department hustles to the scene.
Some of the 16-member department will often be on the scene for hours, depending on the severity of the crash. If there are multiple fatalities, “it’s a minimum of four to five hours,” said Chief David Wade.
To most, the availability of water and Gatorade is part of the job. But those vital fluids are only available if the firefighters bring the drinks themselves, or if a charitable donation provides it to them.
In Alabama, the tax money the volunteer agencies get, cannot pay for the drinks.
“It’s a bit confusing on what you can and cannot spending money on a lot of the times,” said Wade, fire chief at Grand Bay since May. “We have to operate. We need to make sure the equipment is in check, the personnel are there to respond and we get no incentives at all. And if you cannot categorize water and Gatorade and anything for hydration as an operation expense, that is a problem.”
He added, “The volunteers have no way to stay hydrated. You need donation money (to buy water and Gatorade). That is just something that, to me personally, I find offensive in a way.”
An effort is underway in Montgomery to change that by clarifying state guidance on how public money can be spent for volunteer fire departments.
State Rep. Chip Brown, R- Mobile, is sponsoring HB25, that removes some of the restricted expenses listed in a 2009 report on volunteer fire departments by the Alabama Department of Examiners and Public Accounts. The report was reviewed by the agency in December 2014. The latest guidelines, which doesn’t change eligible expenses listed in the previous reports, was released in July.
Within that report are several ineligible expenses of so-called “restricted funds” such as state and federal grants, county appropriations, and sales tax revenues. Prohibited expenses include salaries, food and drinks, kitchen equipment, magazine subscriptions unrelated to fire department operations, and expenses related to holding a fundraiser.
Brown’s legislation would allow individual volunteer fire departments to do the following:
- Purchase electrolyte replacement or sports drinks, water, and similar liquids for use during a fire call or during training.
- Purchase kitchen equipment for the fire station that includes refrigerators, cooking equipment, microwaves, and other items.
- Provide mileage reimbursement for volunteer firefighters who use their vehicles to travel to a fire call
The expenses, according to HB25, must be accounted for by each volunteer department.
The legislation is expected to be heard next session in the House State Government Committee. The Legislature’s session begins January 11.
Brown said the legislation is the result of a conversation he had with fire officials at one Mobile County agency who told him about the prohibited expenditures. He said the guidelines, “didn’t make any sense.”
“Then they have to try and raise money for Gatorade and water from the community,” said Brown. “It (inhibits) people from doing the job. Our role as elected officials is to work in improving that for them and to make it easier for people to serve the community and not have to worry about those things.”
Billy Doss, president of the board of directors for the Alabama Association of Volunteer Fire Departments, said he believes HB25 helps clear up some of the confusion on eligible public fund expenses. He said he doesn’t foresee any controversy brewing from the legislation. But Doss said he was unsure how mileage will be handled with the small amounts the sometimes tiny departments receive from county governments and other public agencies.
“My department only gets a little bit from the county, and in no way can we pay for mileage,” said Doss, who is chief of the Duncanville volunteer fire department in an unincorporated community southeast of Tuscaloosa. “(Brown’s legislation) will allow us to do so when we can. Everyone will want to get paid for mileage, so we’ll have to figure out how to do it.”
Doss said he doesn’t believe the inability to purchase bottled water and Gatorade with public funds is much of an issue. He said he was unaware of a volunteer firefighter who “died from dehydration.”
But dehydration is considered an issue for firefighters who arrive to some intensely hot scenes with sometimes 60 pounds or so of equipment on them. Fighting fires place the firefighters in situations where the internal body temperature rises, and sweating occurs rapidly.
Firefighters can lose water five times faster than athletes in extreme conditions, according to a report by DripDrop Hydration – a leading rehydration therapy company. The rapid loss of fluids becomes the main cause of dehydration.
In Mobile, where summers are punctuated with 90-degree temperatures and high humidity, dehydration can happen quickly.
“We are in one of the most humid areas of the United States and not only are volunteers fighting fires, but they are out here working natural disasters whether it’s a tornado, flood or a hurricane and sometimes they are working for days,” Brown said. “They have to stay hydrated. It’s critical. In the performance of their duties, they need to be provided that by the departments and not relying on what they personally brought to the emergency they are working on.”
Wade, in Grand Bay, said the legislation will also be helpful in providing food for volunteer firefighters who choose to stay overnight or during a weekend at the department’s station.
“When it comes to groceries, you cannot use your restricted funds to buy them,” said Wade. “It’s not about, ‘let’s go out and get $100 worth of groceries.’ But we should be able to supply some food for a day or overnight. They are away from their homes and family.”
The lack of guidance could also be an issue for recruitment, said Wade.
The number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has dropped from over 814,000 in 2015, to 682,600 in 2019, according to statistics by the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Wade thinks the numbers are even lower in the past year amid the national labor shortage. He said it’s difficult to recruit, adding that it’s “hard to find someone to work for free” at a time when “you can’t find someone willing to work for money.”
Alabama relies on more volunteer fire departments than most states in the U.S., including Southern states. According to data from the U.S. Fire Administration – a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency – of the 816 registered fire agencies in Alabama, 79.1% are completely volunteer. Only 12 other states – most of which are in the Midwest or the Northeast – have higher percentages of volunteer fire departments, according to the agency’s data.
“We are a rural state, and we have many more volunteer fire departments and rescue squadrons than we do full-time fire departments,” said Brown. “When you look at volunteer fire departments, the numbers are down recruiting wise.”
He added, “It’s tough to ask people to come out and fight fires when they have to bring their own Gatorade and water.”
This story was updated at 8:17 a.m. on December 30, 2021, to include the 2021 guidance for volunteer fire departments by the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts.
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