How much are volunteer firefighters worth?
WANDA ENGLISH BURNETT PHOTO
he state of volunteer firefighters was felt at a meeting held by the Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association (IVFA) Saturday, October 22 at the Versailles Fire and Rescue station.
“This is a very important meeting,” stressed Larry Curl, lobbyist for the IVFA.
What is the state of the volunteer fire service? Are we preparing for the future or are we at the end of our future?
These pertinent questions invoked a conversation among those attending the 9 a.m. weekend meeting.
“What is the true current state of volunteer fire service?” Curl asked. He was met with “it’s terrible – no manpower – little funding.” Curl agreed, saying, “IT is broken – desperately broken. But, taxpayers can’t afford for us (volunteers) to go away. We have to change. We don’t have a choice.”
Curl said as a lobbyist he works with legislators every day. And while he and others are there promoting volunteerism, it needs to come from the constituents. “You need to have your voice heard. They will listen to you,” he said.
Both State Representative Randy Frye and Senator Jean Leising were at the meeting and both said they understand the critical nature of the situation. It was so important to both of them, they made stops in Versailles before going on to other assignments for the day.
“They (the people we serve) know we’re going to come until we don’t – that’s the problem,” Curl said. He stressed the importance of township trustees working together with fire departments , as well as other elected officials who have the power to change something. “it’s a joint venture,” he noted. “If they (elected officials) are not listening, not helping to find a solution – vote them out.”
His words might seem harsh, but none of the Ripley County Commissioners nor Council members were at the meeting. They had all received invitations and reminders, according to Versailles Fire Chief Ben Sieverding. Also, there were no Ripley County Trustees in attendance, only one from Dearborn County, who was in total support of the volunteer fire service.
There were two board members of Shelby Township at the meeting – Marilyn Hance and Cheryl Welch, along with Vicki Taylor, who is running on the Republican ticket for Trustee for Shelby. Charles Meisberger, who is running on the Democrat ticket for Shelby Trustee was there also representing the New Marion Fire Department, where he is the Chief.
The only other elected officials attending were Roxanne Meyer, Versailles Town Board President and board member Mike Daugherty. Ripley County Surveyor Jeff French was at the meeting and said he knows the struggle from sitting on the Rising Sun Regional Foundation Board of Directors and seeing the grant requests come through.
The rest were firefighters from Delaware, North Vernon, Rising Sun, Switzerland County, Friendship, Versailles, Milan, Holton, New Marion, Sunman, Morris, Aurora, and East Enterprise.
The two-hour session brought out the American Rescue Plan, but Ripley County fire departments didn’t get any revenue from that funding. It was mentioned that some Ripley County officials didn’t think they could use that money for fire service, but Kieth Sieverding said he provided them written information that said otherwise.
The situation with volunteerism is more pronounced now than ever. It’s not only in the fire service, but they are seeing it at an alarming rate. Some employers deem people as “essential workers” and won’t even allow their employees to be late for work due to being at a fire, or leave if the tones are dropped.
“Let the firefighters have chicken dinners and road blocks,” seems to be the feeling of many as fire companies fight to keep their doors open.
So the same person who comes to your fire or accident, to help in your lowest moment for free, is the same person you want to spend countless hours away from their families for needed training and then work again to hold a fundraiser?
Yet, volunteer firefighters do it. They fundraise in a variety of ways hoping they can meet every state mandate (unfunded) and have decent enough equipment plus manpower to serve. That’s what they do.
“We spend more time on fundraisers than we do on training,” Matt Morrow with the Lett’s Volunteer Fire Department noted. Others in the room agreed.
What about money that is supposed to come through the Indiana Lottery for volunteer firefighters? According to Curl, it’s non-existent.
Most property tax owners were against a “fire territory” when one was proposed at Versailles. A large group came to meetings where there were hurtful allegations made against the fire companies. The bottom line was people want the firefighters, they just don’t want to pay for them.
Curl referred to a recent study by American Economics Group, Inc. revealing that volunteer firefighters save Indiana taxpayers $4.5 billion annually.
The meeting concluded with Versailles Chief Sieverding saying that fire departments in the county have to be honest with themselves and the community they serve. He said some existing departments go days without being able to respond to calls due to lack of manpower, leaving others fire departments scrambling to pick up the slack.
Curl agreed saying that if the fire departments are not able to answer the calls, they should consider consolidation and even closing their doors.