FORT SMITH — Many rural and volunteer firefighters in western Arkansas are struggling because of strain from balancing schedules, tight state requirements and a lack of funding, according to members of the state’s rural and volunteer firefighters association.
Jimmy Sullivent Jr., Crawford County Rural Fire District 6 fire chief and president of the Arkansas Rural & Volunteer Firefighters Association, said being a volunteer firefighter or fire chief can be a daunting task.
"I’ve been in this 38 years, and it used to be fun. I mean, it really did … but now it’s turned into a full-time job with no pay," Sullivent said
Tommy Noel, Big Creek fire chief and Sebastian County fire services coordinator, said the state requires each firefighter of a volunteer fire department to have 24 hours of training each year for the department to receive state funds and to maintain ISO ratings. Fire chiefs have to be certified, and each fire department also has its own requirements.
Rural and volunteer fire departments in Arkansas receive of portion of their funding from Act 833 of the state’s 78th General Assembly of 1991, which provides additional funding through insurance premium taxes. The departments also receive funds from membership dues from residents in their respective service areas and a portion of their county’s sales tax. Some city fire departments also receive a portion of their city’s sales tax.
Not everyone in a community pays the requested membership dues, Noel said. Big Creek has a $35 residential due and a $40 business due; dues for other rural and volunteer fire departments in Sebastian County range from $25-$35 yearly, according to data from Sebastian County Judge David Hudson.
"Getting everybody to pay is really tough," Noel said. "A lot of people just don’t want to pay. So, it really makes tough on the fire departments to figure a budget.
Noel suggested as a solution, requiring citizens to pay their membership dues when they go to pay personal property taxes. But such a measure would only come about through an election — an expensive endeavor itself.
"The rural fire departments just don’t have that kind of money to spare," Noel said. "We’re just making ends meet with what we’ve got."
Sullivent acknowledged the importance of required training hours, but said finding the money and time to keep up with state requirements can be a battle because volunteer firefighters have full-time jobs outside of fighting fires and families.
"I’m all for the training; you need to know what you’re doing. This is a very dangerous job, but you’ve got to remember these guys are volunteers," Sullivent said. "There needs to be some incentive. The state could say, ‘If you’re a volunteer or a career firefighter, you get a $1,500 tax credit,’ or something like that."
Hudson said the county does what it can to support its firefighters. According to data provided by his office, nine of the 14 rural and volunteer fire departments received more than $10,000 in Sebastian County sales tax money in 2012. Bonanza had no money listed because its fire department withdraws money from the city’s general fund. Numbers for Hartford and Sugar Loaf fire departments were not provided.
"We’ve got a great county fire-protection organization here. The level of service, the type of equipment, the water delivery, the mutual aid has been upgraded over the years to where we’ve been able to drop our ISO ratings in most all areas of the county," Hudson said. "I know there are issues, but … there have been real successes. The winners on that are the citizens who are served and get their homeowner insurance premiums lowered."
Hudson acknowledged that state requirements have increased over time for all volunteer firefighters, which puts increased pressure on them, but serves to improve their personal well-being and safety.
"Whenever you think of true public servants, the volunteer firefighter is a true public servant, risking their lives — that’s why the training is so important," Hudson said. "They’re volunteers; they’re not being compensated by and large. It does take time. They are the backbone of the fire protection program in our county."
Les Jenkins, Crawford County fire services coordinator, said the nine rural fire districts in his county have a total of $216,000 appropriated in the 2013 budget from the county sales tax. The Quorum Court voted early this year to lower that amount from $244,271 in 2012.
Jenkins said the departments used the extra money to make improvements, but likely will make due with what they get
"Money is always a problem. You’ve got bills to pay, and the prices just keep going up on everything," Jenkins said. "But, on the other hand, I don’t think anybody is suffering in Crawford County. It’s just a constant struggle."
Jenkins added that not being able to buy new equipment has a negative effect on a fire department’s daily operations.
"That doesn’t kill us — we can get along with worn-out equipment, but it’s a regression," Jenkins said. "Unfortunately, prices keep going up, so every year we actually buy less than we had the year before. And then taking our cut on top of that is really bad."
Sullivent said he understands that sometimes a county has to cut down its budget, and that maintaining a fire department is a large undertaking.
"I don’t want to have any more taxes than I’ve got — I’m right along with everybody else," Sullivent said. "But I also know what it takes to operate this thing."