Fire companies grapple with impact of canceled fundraisers

One Pennsylvania agency says it has lost at least $25,000 in revenue due to the need for social distancing; some have turned to virtual fundraisers

Renatta Signorini
Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.

GREENSBURG, Pa. — Gun bashes that can bring in thousands of dollars for fire departments aren’t allowed.

Neither are purse bashes, cash bashes, drag queen bingos, burger sales or any of other typically crowded fundraisers that are the lifeblood of local fire departments, which struggle with finances even in good times.

Throw in the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing protocols, and it’s downright frightening. Tens of thousands of dollars that fire departments expected to be coming in have evaporated.

“We needed help before,” said Delmont fire Chief Rich Balik. “Now you can multiply it by three or four. It’s scary.”

Raising money won’t get any easier as months go by, said Mt. Pleasant fire Chief Jerry Lucia.

“I think it’s going to be hard towards the latter part of the year,” he said.

Some firefighters have come up with novel ideas to salvage fundraisers or create online versions for an era when gatherings are limited in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Fire departments rely heavily on numerous fundraisers and drives in any given year to keep up with regular monthly expenses, including insurance, fuel and utilities.

Then come the extras — unexpected truck maintenance, new vehicles and upgrades to buildings. Without the ability to seek help from the communities they serve, many fire departments are scrambling to make up mounting losses. Some get stipends from their municipalities, but they aren’t enough to fund entire budgets.

Sutersville Fire Department lost a minimum of $25,000 to $30,000 after canceling two fundraisers and closing its social hall, said Assistant Chief Michael Manley. That’s a huge chunk of its $104,000 annual budget.

Manley came up with a way to recoup some of those losses in late March — raffles through Facebook Live. Supporters can send money electronically to the department, and then they are assigned a number or ticket. The person with the winning number gets a prize or cash.

“I kind of took it and ran with it,” he said.

It was instantly popular. The first game sold out in 34 minutes, Manley said.

“It was overwhelming to begin with because we didn’t expect that,” he said. “I think it was a novel thing. I think they wanted to give back to the community.”


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It caught on for South Greensburg Fire Department, too. Chief Eric Hardy said he went a different route by offering prizes rather than cash in an effort to make up for the $8,000 to $10,000 in fundraising the department lost in two months. He gets on Facebook Live to announce the winners after all the payments come through.

But it’s still barely making a dent. A July golf outing fundraiser is in limbo and the department needs to raise $600,000 to replace a pumper truck soon on top of the regular monthly expenses, Hardy said.

Eight-year-old Paige Jones of Fawn made $2,000 for her local firefighters by selling flowers in a Mother’s Day fundraiser, said Barb Selfridge, treasurer of Fawn Township Fire Department No. 1. That made up half of the $4,000 firefighters lost by canceling their fish fry, the department’s biggest fundraiser of the year, she said.

“That was a nice surprise,” Selfridge said.

Spaghetti and roast beef dinners firefighters have planned for later this year are in jeopardy, but for now they’re doing OK on a $60,000 annual budget, she said. Lower Burrell Volunteer Fire Company #3 is hoping to reschedule its annual carnival for later in the year, said president Mike Ogurchock.

The event, typically held the second week of June, brings in about $20,000 that is split between the department and Lower Burrell Volunteer Fire Company No. 1, he said. They’re hoping for a good turnout on July 26 for a food truck festival at the station that has morphed into a takeout-only affair.

Mt. Pleasant firefighters will decide on May 20 whether their annual firemen’s fair at the end of June will go on as planned. That typically brings in about $20,000 in profits, or about a third of the department’s annual budget.

“It’s going to be either one way or the other,” Lucia said.

Both Sutersville and South Greensburg suspended their annual community fund drives. That usually brings in $10,000 to $12,000 for South Greensburg and $7,000 for Sutersville.

A proposal before state legislators would provide $30 million to fire and ambulance services in Pennsylvania through an emergency grant program. Any fire or ambulance company that received grants in any of the last three years would automatically get the funding. State Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, co-sponsored the proposed bill as a way to provide some funds to help as many fundraisers face uncertain futures.

“These firefighters are out there putting their lives on the line even during this pandemic,” he said. “We have to do something to support them.”

The funding is designed to replace monies departments can’t raise. The measure passed the House last month and is awaiting action in the Senate. The Senate on Tuesday sent to the House a bill that would appropriate $31 million in federal funding for grants to fire and EMS agencies.

Delmont Fire Department is staring down $25,000 in losses after canceling two band performances and a gun bash, Balik said.

Firefighters took eight boots to area businesses that are open. They’re hoping to raise $100 in each boot to put toward $3,500 in monthly expenses, he said. An outdoor flea market is being planned.

Other departments have been dealt blows — Greensburg Fire Department Hose Company 8 canceled its first Shuey Burger fundraiser of the year and Youngwood Fire Department is moving its June gun bash online. Balik said the future ofDelmont’s August gun bash is uncertain and, while they could make it virtual, the amount they’d raise would be far less than an in-person event.

Since Sutersville and South Greensburg started the Facebook Live raffles, numerous other local departments have fashioned their own similar fundraisers. Both Manley and Hardy give nods to those departments during their raffles, but said the saturation has made it harder for them to raise money. The pair is planning a joint virtual fundraiser in the future.

“If there’s an opportunity to give back to your community, definitely consider that,” Manley said. “Support all of them if you can.”


©2020 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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