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What is the value of your volunteer fire department?

      If you are in a leadership position in a volunteer fire department, you constantly think about resources (people, equipment, funding) to effectively perform the mission of the organization.  How well does your community support your volunteer fire department? Do they show up for your department’s open houses? Does the community understand that a volunteer fire department exists in their community?

      Does your community show up to fundraisers and the department nets a profit to pay normal operating expenses and have additional funds left over for long term strategic capital expenditures such as apparatus, equipment, etc. For many volunteer fire departments conducting fundraisers is a way of life because they are not fully funded by tax dollars. Many people in departments believe conducting more and more fundraisers is good to pay for normal operating expenses. Though there comes a point in time when volunteers do not have the time to conduct fundraisers or they get burnt out. Let’s face it many volunteers respond to calls, ensure apparatus and equipment are ready for the next emergency, attend training, meetings, and do other essential operational administrative functions, and have to attend fundraisers on top of it. Some volunteer fire departments may have a type of membership where certain members perform fundraising functions only and do not respond to calls. It takes a lot of fundraisers to pay for a new engine these days.

     Does your community believe that running 1970's and 1980's apparatus to respond to emergencies in the community is adequate,  then wonder why their fire apparatus is out of service for extensive amount of time to find outdated parts to fix the community engine. In some cases old fire apparatus may be good to drive through the woods to put out brush fires. Nice new shining fire apparatus might not be ideal for this. Having safe reliable equipment and apparatus for all personnel to use will enable them to efficiently perform the tasks for that emergency incident. 

      If the local elected officials fully understand the value of the volunteer fire department, do they support the department with letters of support for grants and taxes; or do they believe that only $100- $5,000 is sufficient for fire protection or fire and emergency services in the community for a year. Do they understand the level of fire protection or fire and emergency services provided for $100-$5,000 a year?  Many local elected officials and community members believe that having a volunteer fire department means the service is free or at an extremely low cost to operate. In many cases some volunteer fire departments annual operating expenses are in the six digit range.

     Did the fire department fully educate the local elected officials on the fire department’s budget, emergency calls, demographics served, number of personnel trained and certified, and strategic outlook? Basically in a nut shell the CAN report (Conditions, Actions and Needs of the department).  If the local elected officials take a back seat to your CAN report the volunteer fire department might suddenly close because it does not have sufficient resources such as funding or personnel to continue its mission. Now it’s the local elected official’s problem and they will have to try to find a fire department for the community in a hurry. They will spend in the five digit range to conduct a study and audit in the fire department and will find out they should have done more to help the community fire department.

      Departments may merge with other departments to assist with providing adequate resources. Merging will gain people, apparatus, and equipment. Though it will increase the annual operating expenses and taking on outstanding debt if any from another department. This might be a last chance effort by a potential closing department to stay in business. The merging process may take five or more years to accomplish. Some department members may have big egos and leave the organization before merging or after the merger. These days’ egos get in the way of providing the best quality services to the community.

     Do the community residents take a proactive step in fire prevention in the community? The majority of residents put fire prevention and hazard preparation on a back burner while conducting their busy lifestyles. Fire departments must constantly educate the community about fire prevention to give them the information that they can use to protect their families. Having an understanding in the community will greatly improve on the community risk reduction efforts in saving lives and property.

     The community’s value of a volunteer fire department is dependent on many factors. These factors are initiated by the department to improve the public image in ensuring needs are met in the community. Continually educating the community can improve the joint relationship that can exist. At times continually informing and educating local elected officials may bring additional resources to the department. These relationships will enable the community to buy into the organization and support it. 

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Comment by William Hoehn on November 16, 2016 at 1:48pm

Since the days of D*** Bland (America Burning) at Penn State, we have followed his recommendations of keeping a 25 year plan, with annual informational meetings held with city council.  By way of explanation, we cover a little over 100 square miles, with the type of problems that include forest, farms, single and multiple family housing, hospitals, nursing homes, high rise & heavy industry with lots of haz-mat.  We operate 4 front line engines, quint, Heavy Rescue, Tanker (tender) and multiple brush / ATV units.  The annual meeting with council usually takes about 2 hours and includes not only a review of past calls for service, manpower, equipment & replacement needs, but also water supply, ISO grading schedule, and anticipated changes in service due to changing industrial processes.  Our city manager and finance people help us to co-ordinate our tax base and budgets with our anticipated financial needs.  A capital expenditure sinking fund allows us the ability to negotiate with suppliers and adjust tax base revenue in anticipation of future purchases to maintain a fleet that best serves the community by balancing the ISO grading and insurance rates with the tax base and equipment inventory.  By keeping a reputation for providing top-of-the-line service, we can also count on the community to help with special things beyond the city's ability to fund extras that make the job of protecting the city a little easier and more fun.

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