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Flames and finances: Staffing is major challenge for fire departments

Editor’s note: This is the final part of a series looking at how local fire departments balance the needs of their communities with limited budgets. 

Nationally, fire departments battle issues of budgets, too. The U.S. Fire Department Profile through 2014 reports fire protection costs rose 113 percent from 1986 to 2013, after adjusting for inflation, but the number of career firefighters only raised 46 percent.

The National Fire Prevention Association reports there were 29,980 fire departments nationwide in 2014, with 2,440 designated as career departments; 2,045 designated as mostly career; 5,580 designated mostly volunteer; and 19,915 designated as all volunteer departments. That’s the lowest number since 1987, when there were 29,741 fire departments, 1,999 of which were all career, 1,335 were mostly career, 3,635 were mostly volunteer and 23,088 were all volunteer.

As for number of firefighters, in ’14, there were 1,134,400 firefighters, with 346,150 career firefighters and 788,250 volunteers. That’s been a pretty steady number since 1987. The lowest number was 1989, when there were 1,020,700 total, with 250,600 career firefighters and 770,100 volunteers.

Danville

• An estimated 15,500 live in Danville.

• The 2016-2017 budget for the Danville Fire Department is $2.6 million.

“We are a very frugal department. We are always within our budget,” Pflug said. “We’ve always been in good shape.”

The budget is a guide, Pflug emphasizes, and the department always manages to stay within 96-97 percent of the budget. When the weather is bad, it sometimes forces the department’s personnel category over budget, because they have to increase staff during those bad weather times.

Personnel is by far the department’s biggest expense, at $2.3 million. The firefighters for the City of Danville Fire Department are the only paid and full-time firefighters in the county, receiving benefits and overtime. The starting salary is $26,000 a year, bumping to $28,000 when they become fully certified through the state.

“It takes three volunteers to make one full-time firefighter,” Pflug said. It’s not uncommon, however, for the full-time firefighters to serve on volunteer departments, too.

The full-time firefighters work 24-hours on and 48-hours off on a shift, staying at the stations during their shift. There are seven on a shift, and one part-time person, which includes the battalion chief. There are times when the department could use a bigger staffing allocation, as the NFPA says 15 people are needed to fight a structure fire.

Staffing is a challenge anywhere, Pflug said.

“You can never have enough people when you’re fighting a fire,” he said.

The department offers trainings for the firefighters, requiring them to also become internationally certified within their first year.

“What that’s all about is to keep our men and women, professional, well-trained and ready to serve the public,” Pflug said.

With two stations, the department has two fire engines, a ladder truck, a rescue truck, and a special operations vehicle, along with vehicles for Pflug, the assistant chief, the battalion chief, and the fire marshal.

“We have millions of dollars of equipment,” he said.

The Danville Fire Department responds on every medical-related call in the city. There are more medical runs than any other, Pflug said, and overall runs have tripled in the past five years.

The beauty of having firefighters on full-time, he said, was that they were able to devote certain days to certain things. Mondays are “truck days,” when the truck is examined, cleaned, and everything is checked off the list.

Pflug said they also encourage firefighters to expand on the parts that interest them — some are strong in hazmat knowledge, some are strong in pyrotechnics, some are strong in extrication.

“Everyone has a specialty and a favorite,” Pflug said. “There are guys that like hazardous materials — dealing with that. Some guys, it’s radios and communication. You try to find someone’s passion and feed that passion to benefit the department.”

“We find the people who are good at what they do and keep moving forward. We challenge everyone to keep moving forward. Our citizens deserve everything.”

Boyle County

• There are 29,809 people living in Boyle County

• The 2016-2017 budget for the Boyle County Fire Department is $972,200

The biggest expense for the department is personnel, at $149,000. There’s a reserve fund of $104,100, the second biggest item on the budget.

The department receives funding from property, motor vehicle, and other taxes, for a total of $660,000. The rest of the income includes grant funding of $6,200, and charging insurance companies while on runs, for $5,000.

There are seven stations, so seven engines, seven tanker trucks and seven utility trucks. The department also has boats and a search and rescue utility vehicle.

No one from the Boyle County Fire Department was available to comment for the article.