by Greg Markley

Political Writer

What do Lee County’s volunteer fire departments do, anyway? Put out fires? Yes, the main function of a local fire department, volunteer or paid — is putting out fires — fires involving structures, vehicles, dumpsters, grass, woodlands and other property. But most of their annual call volume is responding to medical emergencies, injuries and health concerns. Your volunteer fire department is also there in case of natural disaster and severe weather emergencies such as downed trees and power lines in roads and flooding and wind damage to structures.

In 2011, 77 percent of total calls to Lee County VFD’s were for emergency medical/health assistance, while only 13 percent were for fires. This represents a major change from 20 years ago when almost all calls were for fires.

“The fire fee is their (the VFD’s) only source of income,” Andy Guy, Auburn Unit Manager for the Alabama Forestry Commission, pointed out. “There is no way for the departments to keep their doors open with all that they do now versus what they were doing 25 years ago. They can’t operate off barbecue sales and other fundraisers anymore.”

Guy hopes citizens understand that it is these volunteers who respond first on medical calls, structure fires, forest fires, automobile accidents and storm damage. A generation ago, he asserts, VFDs responded only to fires.

“These days, I have seen instances where, not only minutes, but seconds have made a difference in saving lives and property,” Guy said. “Citizens are very supportive of VFD’s after they’ve responded to emergencies, but I don’t think most people understand the funding source for these departments.”

Contrast that perceived low level of understanding with that of Berkeley County, West Virginia, which has about 86,000 residents affected by its fire fee. (Lee County has perhaps 55,000-65,000 residents affected by its fire fees.) Fire Board Chairman Gregory Rhoe noted that Berkeley County raised its fire fees in April without much public complaint.

“I guess no one enjoys paying more but the vast majority of our citizens faithfully pay the fees,” Rhoe told the Observer. “The county fire service is provided predominantly by five volunteer fire companies. Fully paid service would be unaffordable.”

In Lee County on May 29, residents from each of six fire districts (Beauregard, Friendship in Smiths Station, Farmville, Plainview, Salem and Southwest) will vote on a fire fee increase from $25 to $50. The new fee would begin this Oct. 1 and conclude Sept. 30, 2036. If the increase is voted down, the authorization for the current fire fee expires at the end of next year.

Guy, of the Alabama Forestry Commission, noted the commission has been reducing personnel, equipment and offices in the cutbacks of recent years. He said this downsizing has clearly increased emergency personnel response times to wildfires.

“It forces the VFD’s to have to try and protect forestland, homes, and property for a longer period of time until we can get our units to the scene,” the forester said. “This requires more time, fuel, and manpower placed on the volunteer fire departments. Don’t forget that these volunteers most likely left their paying job to respond to the emergency.”