Inman, Lockhart press for boost in rural fire-fighting grants

OKLAHOMA CITY – Rural fire departments need an additional source of revenue to buy and maintain equipment that has a direct effect on insurance premiums of rural homeowners, state Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener, said Tuesday.

Rural departments receive operational grants each year from the state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Earlier this year, 863 certified rural fire departments received $4,484 each from a $3.87 million appropriation by the state Legislature, according to George Geissler, director of Oklahoma Forestry Services.

Ten fire departments in Oklahoma County – Spencer, Nicoma Park, Luther, Harrah, Newalla, Jones, Hickory Hills, Forest Park, Deer Creek and Arcadia – all received one of the operational grants, said House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Oklahoma City.

Rural fire departments also can charge subscription fees. As an illustration, Post Mountain Volunteer Fire Department in LeFlore County averages about $2,500 per year “at best” in subscription fees, said Amy Howard, assistant chief of the department, secretary-treasurer of its governing board, and the department’s training officer.

From that $7,000 the Post Mountain department would typically be expected to provide full-coverage insurance and all necessary personal firefighting apparatus for its eight volunteers, purchase training materials, buy and maintain the necessary equipment for its vehicles and pay the fuel bills for them, and pay the utility bills and maintenance expenses on department buildings, Howard said.

“The success of any fire department is partially determined by its ISO (International Organization for Standards) rating,” she said. “What most people fail to realize is how much money a good ISO rating costs.” [ISO ratings range from 10 (worst) to 1 (best).]

Bunker gear for a firefighter, including helmet and boots, costs $1,800; self-contained breathing apparatus (an airpack) costs $4,800; and flame-retardant wildland gear costs $500, Howard said. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, estimates that the 863 rural fire departments in Oklahoma are staffed by approximately 11,000 volunteer firefighters, Deputy Commissioner Blayne Arthur reported.

“ISO also requires a pump test on your engines for the last three years,” Howard continued. “The cost of that is approximately $300 per fire engine and usually is performed by an outside source.”

Fire hoses, nozzles, water appliances and many other items “have to be purchased or replaced periodically, and they don’t come cheap,” she said. For example, 50 feet of 2½-inch diameter double-jacketed fire hose costs $193 to $270, depending upon the supplier, and Post Mountain VFD would order 400 feet of the hose if it had to replace some, Howard said.

“I have been told that some legislators believe rural fire service is a county issue, like the sheriff’s department and emergency medical service, and therefore not a state problem,” Howard wrote in an email earlier this month. “Yet sheriff’s offices are mentioned in state statute, and EMS is a billable service where employees are paid and fees are charged and billed.”

The nature of rural fire protection/rescue service “makes that type of arrangement impractical,” Howard believes. “Volunteer firefighters are not paid, they require expensive equipment, and they are funded less than most other entities.”

LeFlore County collects a sales tax that produced $407,880 in October, Oklahoma Tax Commission ledgers reflect. However, many counties in Oklahoma don’t levy a sales tax that could be used to help underwrite rural fire departments, Howard noted. In contrast, some states distribute insurance receipts to fire departments via county and/or state governments, records reflect.

Rural fire departments in Oklahoma are advised to submit grants for essential equipment, Howard said. But many rural departments cannot afford computers or the Internet connection needed to submit grant applications, and many of them simply don’t have the requisite expertise to submit such an application, she said.

Post Mountain recently received a $199,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to buy an engine/pumper; the department must contribute a 5% match, or $9,950. “I assure you that without our county sales tax funding, this grant would not have been possible,” Howard said. “Not only the grant match, but the insurance premium on the truck, would be more than an unfunded rural department could afford.”

Post Mountain is one of 29 volunteer fire departments in LeFlore County and provides fire protection service in a 90 square-mile area.

If the State of Oklahoma were to provide more funding or equipment for rural fire departments, the expense would be offset by lower insurance premiums for rural property owners because of improved ISO ratings, Lockhart and Howard both contended.