A good firefighter knows “how.” An educated firefighter knows “why.”
It’s the volunteer firefighters who can attest to the “what.“ When it comes to getting a job done, they’ll do whatever it takes.
“Everything we do is hard. Everything we touch is heavy, and a lot of the calls are long,” Kory Steele, Fire Chief with Tilden–New Salem Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) said. “Nothing about this can be considered a hobby, it’s 200% a job.”
Itawamba County has 12 volunteer fire departments scattered within its boundaries: Dorsey-Friendship, Banner, Northeast, Evergreen-Carolina, Tremont, Mantachie, Tilden-New Salem, Liberty Grove; Cardsville, Houston and Ryans Well are wholly volunteer operated. Fulton Fire Department has 27 volunteers on its roster, along with three full-time firefighters.
Each VFD holds meetings monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, with its members. Discussion of finances, re-certification training and the fundraisers that help keep their departments afloat all top the agenda.
When it comes to the hours it takes to keep insurance rates down, coupled with the effort it takes to keep equipment up, it’s the members of these small departments that face big battles. Low budgets, aging equipment and the dwindling desire to serve in the high-maintenance, no-pay positions often leave longtime firefighters questioning how much longer they can hold on.
It gets real.
Holding it together
The high cost of outfitting a single firefighter with the minimal requirements for safety equipment can be a nearly insurmountable hurdle for small, volunteer-run departments. The Itawamba County Board of Supervisors recently voted to allow the purchase of turnout gear with a price tag of $2,800. This is considered a conservative price.
One 30-minute air pack runs upwards of several thousand dollars.
Rebate funds from insurance companies, combined with tax dollars budgeted by the county help, fund VFDs, but the high cost of equipment can put a strain on already tight budgets.
“Our department gets around $3,800 in tax money per year from the county, and $1,000 of that goes to truck and property insurance,” Steele said. “The remaining amount goes to cover everything else – such as utilities, fuel and truck repairs. That money runs out pretty quickly.”
A recent grass fire that quickly burned out of control left Evergreen-Carolina VFD scrambling for backup and necessitated fire engine repairs after the emergency was over. Like all fire departments, volunteers have hours of cleaning up and putting equipment back in working order after a run. Evergreen-Carolina’s crew discovered an engine leak a few days after parking their truck.
“We found a leak above the pump that requires a specialized fitting,” Chief Lee Wright said. “We’ll either have to order it or have a local machine shop or hose company make what we need. Either way, it’s costly.”
A set of four new tires for a personal vehicle cost around $600. Tires for a fire truck cost around $700 each.
“The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires us to change the tires after a certain period of time. Right now I’m looking at trucks that need them not just for that reason, but for the safety of our volunteers as well,” Wright said. “That’s over $3,000 and that hits a budget hard.”
Tilden-New Salem’s newest fire truck is 18 years old.
“The secondary money we receive can only be spent on new fire equipment, that too is gone quickly unless we suffer with older and out-of-date equipment in order to save a few years for a larger purchase,” Steele said. “Most of us can’t do that if we plan on keeping our volunteers in safe equipment.”
Savings and sacrifice
Tim Alsup’s day job plays a big part in keeping Tilden’s equipment up and running. As a heavy equipment mechanic, he spends countless hours maintaining and repairing everything from the Jaws of Life to the department’s rescue truck.
“Tim has been a lifesaver when it comes to keeping our equipment up,” Steele said. “He has saved us thousands upon thousands of dollars.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Alsup kicked his “lifesaver” abilities up a notch. While taking a vacation day, an emergency 911 call came across his radio.
“It was a car accident, but the problem was my wife had gone to Walmart in my truck,” Alsup said. “I knew I needed to get there, so I just started running.”
He radioed dispatch to let them know he needed help and just kept running.
“There are not always volunteers available during the weekdays,” he said. “So I knew I needed to get there.”
After retrieving the rescue truck from the fire department and arriving at the scene, the driver had only suffered from a few cuts and bruises.
“The outcome was great,” Alsup said. “We do this for the community.”
Heaped upon the hours of fighting fires, answering medical calls and repairing equipment, firefighters must also organize fundraisers to supplement low funds.
Dorsey-Friendship volunteers largely paid for their new 48-foot by 48-foot station by frying and selling fish. The new two-bay structure sits just east of Dorsey Food Mart on donated land.
In an interview with The Times last fall, Chief Jim Long said the project drew upon no no county funds or grants. It represents years of patience, hard work and penny-pinching efforts to reach their goals.
Evergreen-Carolina’s station was built using loans secured by volunteers willing to put their name and personal property on the line. To pay off the debt, they fry fish too.
For Tilden-New Salem, it’s barbecue and bake sales. Hosting at least one event every year to add to their bank account.
As for what the public can do, Steele says it their support that’s needed the most.
“Just continue to support your local departments and its volunteers as much as you possibly can,” he said. “We need all the support anyone and everyone can offer, from mental to spiritual and of course monetarily. If not for the public’s help, love and support we would not survive.”