Fire fighter economics: supply and demand
Exploring the costs of running the Morgan County Fire Department
story by Kathryn Purcell
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
The annual operating budget for the Morgan County Fire Department comes to a total of $600,000 a year. That total includes the cost of gear, self-contained breathing apparatuses and fire engines, among numerous other items.
In Morgan County, it does not include the cost of paying a full-time force of firefighters.
Nor does it include the value of a life, or a person's property.
Cost (In Money)
It takes 75 pounds of gear, including a helmet, hood, coat, gloves, pants, suspenders, boots and communication equipment, to properly equip a Morgan County firefighter to do their job. The cost of this gear comes to $1700 per person.
Further, the Morgan County Fire Department owns about 66 self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs), each costing $4400 a piece. Four SCBAs are kept on each of the county's fire engines.
The fire department recently purchased two new sets of extrication tools, and all stations are equipped with an Automated External Defibrillator for medical emergencies.
Fire engines cost between $185,000 and $205,000 without equipment, and there are 46 pieces of major fire equipment, including fire engines, in the county, according to Jerry Couch. Tack on $40,000 worth of equipment - the hose, nozzle, appliance tools - to be totally compliant with state requirements, and the total cost of a fire engine comes to a minimum of $225,000.
Moreover, as the county grows, so will the size of buildings. Fire engines equipped with an aerial ladder and platform cost around $750,000, and take at least six people to operate.
"We are growing towards that need," Morgan County Fire Department Coordinator Couch said. "There are enough buildings over three stories, a lot of houses being built in the county. Does that concern me? Oh yes...When the time comes, I'm sure that recommendation will be made."
County funding also provides for volunteer firefighters' quarterly $60 paychecks and $20 fuel allotments. Additionally, if desired by the volunteer firefighter, the county puts $15 per month per person into a state firefighter pension fund.
Extra training, like rescue specialization, extrication and wildfire training, requested by some firefighters is also part of the bill footed by the county.
The Morgan County Fire Department's annual operating budget totals $600,000 a year, and is provided by the county government. It would be much more, according to Couch, if the county had to employ a full-time paid force.
Couch estimates that, if a station went to a standard "24 (hours) on, 48 (hours) off" scenario with four firefighters per shift, it would take a minimum of 12 people to staff a station. At an estimated salary of $28,000 per firefighter, it would take about $336,000 to staff one station.
"The volunteer force saves this county a lot of money," Couch said.
Additional funding for the Morgan County Fire Department is supplied by grants. In fact, the fire department is the recent recipient of a $1 million grant to provide for updated gear, brand new SCBAs and a new fire engine.
To raise money for upkeep and desired extra accouterments, like station T-shirts or extra supplies or equipment (special nozzles, personal helmet lights or $1700 piston valves, for example) many of the stations will host some kind of in-house fund-raisers. Barbecues, pancake suppers and stands selling roasted peanuts are examples of past fund-raisers, some of which are annual events.
There are 15 stations in Morgan County - Apalachee, Central, Bostwick, Buckhead, Godfrey, Fairplay, Clacks Chapel, Bethany/Springfield, Rutledge, Headquarters, Sugar Creek, West Road Sub-Station, Apalachee/441 Sub-Station, Buckhead/Mt. Zion Sub-Station and Bethany/Porter Road Sub-Station. There are between nine and 23 volunteer firefighters per station.
While the Morgan County Fire Department has answered more than 50 calls in a month, last month the county's volunteer firefighters answered 33 calls. In total, the fire department answers about 500 calls per year.
Cost (In Time and Effort)
The Morgan County Fire Department is staffed by five full-time, paid fire personnel...and 120 volunteers.
"These men are every bit as professional as the paid firefighters in Atlanta," Commissioner Ellen Warren said.
Down from 140 volunteers some years ago, the county continues to grow, while the number of volunteer firefighters can't keep up.
"If it's on a volunteer basis, how much time can they really give us?" Couch said. "That said, without volunteers, I couldn't maintain the operations I have now."
After the initial Firefighter Module I class, Morgan County firefighters are also required to take eight hours of additional training each month and respond to 50 percent of calls. Those that comply receive a quarterly paycheck of, well, $60, and may be eligible to get an extra $20 fuel allotment.
Clearly, it's more about the humanitarian commitment than it is about the pay.
"It's not a whole lot, but it's something for their time," Couch said. "Volunteers...want to give to the community and support what's going on."
"We want to be here for the job, not for the pay," Chief Dean Strange said.
"Satisfaction from the work we do means more than anything," Chief Randall McGlauchlen said.
"That's the reason we do what we do," Chief Jeff Dickson agreed.
The problem with maintaining the volunteer force comes with the fact that older volunteers are coming to the decision that they are ready to retire from the volunteer force, and no one' s stepping in to fill their slots.
"Age is starting to be a factor," Couch said. "We need younger people pulling hoses and fighting fires.The average age of our firefighters is mid-40s."
More experienced volunteers, those in their mid-30s to 50s, make up roughly 70 percent of Morgan County volunteer force. The other 30 percent is made up of volunteers in the 18 to 30-years-old range.
Couch estimates that 10 firefighters were added to the volunteer roster since the first of this year, with most being younger males just of age (18-years-old) to join.
While some of the more experienced firefighters want out of actually stepping into a burning building, some are requesting more in-depth training in various firefighting-related fields, like rescue specialization, extrication and wildfire training. Additionally, the county now supports a dive recovery team.
The cost to the volunteer firefighters is the time spent fulfilling requirements, responding to calls and receiving additional training, time away from family and friends.
"It's a commitment not only for you, but family-wise, too," Couch said.
"These guys give to their community more than anything," Warren said. "They give of their time, and even more, they put their lives on the line. They are a fine group."
Pay It Forward
In an effort to raise awareness about Morgan County's Volunteer Fire Department, the county is undertaking a promotional campaign to demonstrate to residents the services provided by the volunteers, as well as to recruit more volunteers to the fire department.
"We want to bring it to the forefront of people's mind," Morgan County Special Projects Coordinator Monica Hayden said. "They're there, people just don't think about them."
While the need for volunteers is imminent, so is the need for those who wish to provide support to the volunteers by preparing materials, answering calls and working behind-the-scene as well as to drive the fire engine, unhook the hose and pass out tools.
"If anyone wanted to volunteer, but did not want to go out and fight fires, there are jobs for those people," Hayden said.
Hayden stresses that there is no monetary cost to volunteers, training and uniforms are provided, and that volunteers receive a small $60 stipend and are eligible for entrance to the state pension fund.
"If you want to contribute but don't know how, this is a good way to do it," Hayden said.
Morgan County volunteer firefighters will be on hand at the county's Independence Day celebrations to offer information and insight to those interested. Further, volunteers will have a booth at the Back-to-School Rally on August 12 and will speak at Town Hall meetings and to seniors at the high school in the fall. Any organization interested in hearing a presentation regarding the Morgan County Fire Department can contact Jerry Couch at 706.343.6503 or Monica Hayden at 706.342.0725 for more information.
"Volunteering is about doing something that counts," Strange said.
"Being a volunteer firefighter is about being a part of the community," Warren said. "It helps shapes the place you live in."