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Flames and finances: Perryville firefighters do triple duty as EMTs, flood recovery responders

This is the first part in a series of stories looking at how local fire departments balance the needs of their communities with limited budgets.

It costs about $16,000 to outfit a firefighter for duty, including the boots, turnout gear, gloves, flash hood, and helmet, which is the most expensive.

For those who already have helmets, it can still cost a department more than $3,000. For trucks for them to ride in, it can run a department into the millions.

Fire departments nationwide face issues of balancing budgets with demands and resources, and local departments are not immune to the struggles. Perryville Fire Chief Anthony Young said that can mean counting every nickel to figure it out, but his department makes it work.

An estimated 751 people live in Perryville and the city’s fire department plans to operate on a budget of $9,774 this fiscal year. The department has also received $8,250 in state aid funding, an amount that varies from year to year.

“I think we do very well with the budget. Of course, I wish it was more, but I think very few people would tell you, ‘Oh, I wish I didn’t have this money to spend.’ I think we do a good job with what we get,” Young. “I don’t think anybody would say that we have any extravagances here.”

“Typically, I use the state aid for gear and larger ticket equipment purchases. They have a varied list of liberal equipment items that you can spend it on,” Young said. Some of the items you have to get prior approval for, such as radios, and show that the other needs, such as gear, are covered. They want you to meet those basic needs.”

Of the city-funded portion of the budget — $9,774 — about one-third goes to pay for the department’s insurance. Repair and maintenance costs for the department’s fire engine and other other equipment, such as chainsaws and fans, costs an estimated $2,500.

Payroll costs come in at about $2,100 in the budget. Firefighters make $7.25 an hour when they report to runs, but they generally give that money back so they can purchase shirts, hats, sweatshirts and other items not covered by the budget.

“We pool that money up. That’s the stuff we go out and represent the city in. You want to look professional,” he said.

One way the department is able to save some money, Young said, is in training. Firefighters do not get paid to attend training events, but they are required to attend in order to maintain their certifications through the state. There are seven firefighters with the department who are also qualified as instructors, meaning quite a bit of the training can be offered in-house, saving money for the department.

“Sometimes there are classes that I have to go to, or one of the guys has to go to. That would come out of the budget,” he said.

Firefighters as EMTs

Nationwide, firefighters are seeing fewer calls for fires and more calls for medical issues. In Perryville, the fire department responds to medical calls and can often arrive quicker than EMS personnel can due to proximity. Young said 50 percent of Perryville’s runs are for medical calls.

The department has nine emergency medical technicians and a few more firefighters are in training.

“It’s important to have as much training as you can,” Young said. “We’re 10 miles from EMS headquarters. You’re talking at least seven to eight minutes. Having folks on scene quick can literally make a life or death difference.”

Young said having firefighters trained as EMTs is good for the community, and it’s good for the firefighters.

“The number one killer of firefighters is heart attacks. It’s important for our folks to have that training for our own benefit. At a fire scene, at a training, something could happen, when you put on that gear and subject your body to that stress. It’s important that you’re medically trained to help your own,” he said.

In the past, the department helped cover the cost for EMT training, but that’s no longer possible with the current budget, so the cost falls back on the firefighters, Young said. They do try to bring instructors in to teach the courses, helping offset some of the cost.

Working floods

A big problem Perryville faces is flooding, Young said. The city sits along the banks of the Chaplin River.

The department will spend a great deal of time helping people pump water out following flooding events. They’ve also prepared for water rescues, Young said.

“You’ve got to be prepared. It would not be prudent for us to have a bunch of water rescue equipment and not have a water source. We have a small part of the Chaplin River here. About a mile is in the city limits. But we recognize that within that mile is a pretty good population of people.”

Until last year, the city of Perryville had been averaging about one structure fire per year.

Young said the biggest challenge is finding people willing to run in when others run out.

“It’s finding people that have the desire to get into something that doesn’t pay much at all, that takes time away from your family and requires a lot of training to meet the basic requirements to do it,” he said.

Young, who also has a full-time job, has been a member of the Perryville Fire Department for 29 years. When he started, he said many firefighters were farmers, who were around the area during the day. A lot of times the spouses of firefighters were stay-at-home mothers. In many situations now, he said, people work away from Perryville and both spouses work to make ends meet.

“It’s easy to say money is a challenge, and it is. But doing something like this takes time away from your family and your kids. It takes blood, sweat and tears to get it done,” Young said. “We’ve been very fortunate over the last year, we’ve picked up several new firefighters that are very interested in it.

“We can’t offer them something that’s going to pay a lot of money. We can’t offer them something that’s going to give them a big retirement. But what we can offer is something that’s going to instill some pride in what they do and to know that they made a difference in their community. That’s the way you’ve got to look at it. It’s a way to give back.”

The next story in this series will appear in Friday’s Advocate-Messenger and be focused on the Junction City Fire Department.