Fuel costs squeezing Ark. firefighter volunteers

By Ginny Laroe 
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock)

LONSDALE, Ark. — "The Lonsdale Volunteer Fire Department has run out of gas!" At least, that's what a fundraiser flier says.

Its trucks are actually filled to the brim. But like many volunteer fire departments across the state that operate on tight budgets, rising gas prices are forcing it to get creative.

Lonsdale, which serves about 3,000 people in a rural area of Garland, Saline and Hot Spring counties, is asking the public to pitch in at the pump.

It will hold a spaghetti dinner and auction June 7 at the Ten Mile Baptist Church on U.S. 70. Tickets cost $6.50.

Chief Eddie Tackett hopes to raise $2,000 to put toward fuel in hopes of warding off any service cutbacks.

"We're going to try to continue business as usual," Tackett said after flipping through gas receipts, which showed recent purchases of $68, $64, $35 and $65 worth of diesel.

And that's just to top off a few trucks after calls this week.

Tackett said a heavier-than-usual call load and runs during the April storms have exceeded his $250 monthly fuel allotment. It can cost several hundred dollars to fill the trucks with diesel, for which the local filling station was charging $4.65 a gallon Thursday.

The national average for a gallon of diesel Thursday was $4.78, while regular gasoline was $3.95, according to AAA.

Volunteer departments across the state are mostly funded through dues. They also draw some federal and state funds that are typically tied to equipment or training.

In Lonsdale, households pay $50 a year for fire protection. Tackett estimates more than 65 percent of households have paid their dues, giving his department an annual budget of $23,000.

"With a limited budget, it's hard to increase any line item," Tackett said.

The Morning Star Fire Department in Garland County, which is mostly volunteer, has implemented some fuel-saving measures.

Firefighters now take regular vehicles to inspections and other routine business and leave the firetrucks back at the station, where a driver awaits any emergency calls, Fire Chief James Stine said.

"We're squeezed," he said.

In the Washington County town of West Fork, the extra fuel costs are taking away from other activities, Fire Chief Mitch McCorkle said.

"I need to be spending it on some radios; I need to be spending it on station doors and equipment instead of on fuel," he said.

For the volunteer department in Bee Branch in Van Buren County, rising fuel prices are putting a strain on volunteer firefighters who drive their own vehicles to fires and traffic accidents.

"A lot of them are on lower income," Chief Keith Parish said. "They want to be a part of the community, and they want to help. It's getting harder for me to ask them to do stuff because of the gas prices." Peter T. Reagan, an Arkansas field representative for the International Association of Firefighters, said that as the year progresses, even the state's professional agencies will start scrambling to pay for fuel.

He said he expects to see agencies cutting training and other activities that cause them to run the gas-guzzling pump trucks.

Copyright 2008 Little Rock Newspapers, Inc.

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