The Pryor Times

September 24, 2013

Firefighters provide detailed report

Staff Writer
Susan Wagoner

PRYOR, OK — In response to budget cuts recently approved by Salina’s Board of Trustees, several firefighters presented a detailed report at the September meeting.

In August, trustees voted to suspend monthly support payments of $850 per month to the fire department. The move came as part of a larger effort to battle a budget deficit.

The fire department has a balance of nearly $40,000 in the operations account and over $80,000 in the county sales tax account. The operations account is funded mostly by fire dues, donations and grants.

The town will continue to pay for insurance and pensions, and promised to review the matter often.

No one addressed the board during the meeting, but copies of the report were given to each trustee.

“We respect the actions of the city council and understand that they are working through a financial deficit,” Captain Garrett Ball said later. “The sole purpose of this (report) was to educate the council on what we do, what we have accomplished and our goals and problems that we are facing now and in the future.”

Ball said the money the department received from the town was used to pay utility bills until about two years ago. Utilities can run over $1,000 per month.

“We have since begun paying the utilities from county funds. Currently we have been using the city funds for basic consumable goods such as vehicle parts, and have reserved as much as possible to go toward purchasing a new pumper truck,” Ball said.

The loss of city support concerns the department because it will “push back capital improvement projects that we have planned, foremost replacing a1974 model pumper truck.

“This is needed to satisfy pump capacity requirements for ISO (insurance rating) and to be better prepared for large scale incidents,” Ball said.

The department mission statement is “to protect life and preserve property from the devastation of fire and all other disasters or accidents in the town of Salina, the surrounding rural areas and neighboring communities.”

According to the report, the fire department responded to 539 calls in 2012. Of those, 335 were medical, 15 were structure fires and 66 were vegetation fires.

The all-volunteer station in Salina is unmanned. Firefighters are dispatched via pagers through Mayes County 911.

“When someone dials 911, the dispatcher at the 911 center pages us with call information and we respond to the station and then the call,” Ball said.

The report details the many work and training hours volunteered by firefighters. In 2012, there were 3,218 hours of volunteer work / training hours “exclusive of emergency call responses.”

While volunteers are reimbursed for costs associated with training such as fuel, meals and lodging, they are out the cost of fuel when responding to calls, vehicle wear, maintenance and clothing, according to Ball.

“We do, every so often, buy everyone a T-shirt or two, but that does not come close to replacing clothing damaged on a regular basis,” Ball said.

The report stated since 2001, “we have made considerable improvements at the fire department and expanded our capabilities. These improvements were made possible by a city sales tax that generated approximately $300,000 for us over the course of about five years, the county-wide fire sales tax that typically generates around $65,000 annually for us, equipment and material donations from area businesses, many cash grant awards secured by fire personnel and the continual dedication and sacrifices of our volunteer firefighters.”

The report detailed all of the major purchases and projects the fire department has taken on since 2001, with an explanation of the need, the cost and the action.

“The most critical problem that we have now does not involve our building, equipment or trucks, it is personnel,” the report stated. “Over the last 10 years, roughly 80 percent of the firefighters that filled the ranks for the previous 20 to 30 years have retired. New volunteers are very difficult to find and when they realize the dedication and sacrifices that are required, most quickly lose interest.”

The report revealed that the problem is nationwide and is threatening volunteer fire departments all over the country.

“If we do not act quickly to remedy this issue, we are at serious risk of shutting down the department in the next 24 months,” according to the report.

The department detailed incentive options to boost personnel:

1. Hire two to four paid firefighters: This would make a tremendous impact on the problem. Paid firefighters could man the station during the day when  typically only  one to three volunteers are available for calls. The annual cost to the city would range from $115,000 to $195,000. Note that all of this cost falls to the city because the county tax money cannot be spent for any kind of personnel expenses.

2. Pay volunteers per call: Most city fire departments in Mayes County currently do this. For example, Chouteau pays their volunteers $15 per fire call and $5 per medical call. The unpredictability of call volume makes this a very difficult item to budget and does not incentivize training or station work.

3. Performance Incentive Stipend: This rewards firefighters for attending emergency calls and training and helps offset their out-of-pocket expenses for fuel and other related costs. The amount of the stipend is based on each firefighter’s level of training. The maximum total would be $3,000 per year per firefighter. This amount is under the maximum amount that firefighters in Oklahoma can make without being considered career firefighters.

“In the past, we have always tried to keep our service as strictly volunteer simply because we feel it is more rewarding, but we believe those days are over,” the report states, adding the department lacks both the quantity and quality of firefighters required for efficient and effective operations at emergency incidents.

“Typically at a structure fire, we have two or three seasoned firefighters with appropriate training that have to supervise three to eight firefighters who lack both training and experience,” the report states. “Without adequately trained personnel, we are putting both firefighters and civilians at risk. Our typical structure fires are not in locations that are covered by fire hydrants, so the standard response by an engine company and support company are not sufficient.”

The report shows that normally, there is an incident commander, a safety officer, water supply officer, two men for water supply (tanker operations), a minimum of four for ventilation / fire attack and two for rapid intervention.

“This operation requires 11 firefighters. When we have less than that amount, we are forced to multitask and with untrained firefighters, the trained personnel are forced to do three or four tasks simuntaneously. This situation is inevitably bound for disaster,” according to the report.

“Ideally, right now, we would have two career firefighters to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the week,” Ball said. “These are the times we are generally short on help at calls. These firefighters could take care of the time consuming administrative tasks such as paperwork, maintenance and cleaning and allow volunteers to concentrate on training and responding to calls. Additionally, we would be paying volunteers $10 - $15 per run to cover their out-of-pocket fuel and wear expenses.”

According to the report, decreased funding will start a domino effect that will ultimately present some difficult decisions for town trustees, including the possibility of contracting fire service with a neighboring town.

“We honestly hope that this does not happen, but we are in a severe situation and attention needs to be given to this matter immediately,” the report concluded. “We hope that this report has been informative and that positive action comes from it. We truly appreciate all of the support the town has given us in the past and want you to know that serving the people of this community is probably the greatest reward that we could ever receive.”

The Salina Fire Department is always accepting applications for new firefighters. Interested parties should contact the department at 918-434-5200.