BY MADELINE ACOSTA
FOR THE OBSERVER
LEE COUNTY —
On Saturday, Feb. 4, I drove to Louise Cardoza’s farm out in Chambers County. Cardoza is a volunteer at the Oak Bowery Volunteer Fire Department (OBVFD), which is about a mile down the road from her house. We sat down with volunteers Robert Griffith and Gene Quick, had some breakfast and coffee, and the four of us discussed the fire department and its history.
The department first opened its doors in the ‘80s with about 20 volunteers and Steve Tucker as the original fire chief.
“He was the one that got the original grant money to get the two engines,” Griffith said. “And the engines were used, so they weren’t new.”
A lack of resources is something all too common at the Oak Bowery Volunteer Fire Department. The equipment being used and outdated can only go so far, and without enough budget, the volunteers are struggling.
As the years passed, the number of volunteers slowly decreased. By the time Quick and Griffith joined as volunteers around 2017, the number of volunteers was down to one.
“The demographic had changed,” Quick said. “People moved away or died. But we slowly built it back up, and now we’ve got around 15 people.”
While we talked about the department’s past, we also talked about the current state of the department and its struggles.
WHERE THEY ARE NOW
One of the biggest concerns that the volunteers have is money. While the volunteers have applied for and received grants — as well as donations — the cost of equipment and other necessities is still too expensive.
“We don’t have the money,” Griffith said. “That’s the piece that we’re missing. The cost of everything is just astronomical.”
Some of the department’s equipment, such as its breathing apparatus, needs to be replaced. The main problem: It cost about $40,000 to replace it. The question that the volunteers have: “How are we going to pay for $40,000 of a replacement with only a yearly budget of $20,000?”
The department also has the cost of insurance every year, which takes out a chunk of its budget. These financial issues have forced the volunteers themselves to start donating in order to supply the department with what it needs. Whether it’s the breathing apparatus or the four new suits which cost around $11,000, money is something that the OBVFD is in dire need of.
“I don’t think people realize all of things they depend on,” Griffith said. “You depend on the sheriff’s department; you depend on the ambulance service. You would spend money on those. Why wouldn’t you spend the same amount of money on your volunteer fire department? We do the best we can, but there is only so much you can do with a budget of $20,000.”
WHERE THEY WANT TO GO
As the need for newer and better equipment goes up, so do the prices. The fire engines that the department uses were originally $160,000. Now, the engines cost close to $500,000.
Along with the money concerns, the volunteers also have their fair share of problems with their equipment being outdated. One of the newest volunteers was born only three years after the department’s truck was built in 1990.
Currently, a few of the volunteers have donated pieces of land to the department in order to store more water in tanks in the surrounding area. With these additional areas, the volunteers would have access to more water in a shorter amount of time.
HOW THEY ARE GOING TO GET THERE
Volunteers with OBVFD are conducting a fundraiser to build a new water tank for them to store more water at the fire station. With the fire engines the volunteers use now, they can only hold up to 1,000 gallons of water at a time. A house fire or structure fire needs about 30,000 gallons of water to fully extinguish the fire. The water tank will be able to help provide water for the volunteers in a more convenient and efficient way.
“We’ve never had water so close, like two minutes down the road,” Griffith said. “With this new tank, instead of having to go all the way to Lafayette, we’d have a closer source.”
With more donations and grants, the volunteers at OBVFD will be able to combat some of the problems they face, but what they also need is awareness. Not many people are aware of how few of the firefighters in Chambers County and the surrounding counties are actually paid.
“This is a growing community,” Cardoza said. “People probably don’t even know that we’re all volunteers or that we need their help.”
Originally, I planned on talking to the volunteers about their lives and how they were inspired to become volunteers at the fire department. However, talking and meeting with some of them opened my eyes to the hardships that these volunteers face every time they get a call over their radios. And these problems are not exclusive to the Oak Bowery Volunteer Fire Department. With the lack of funding, many of the local volunteer fire departments in Alabama have these same problems and also struggle to make ends meet.
“I think you’re gonna hear the same thing that you’re [hearing] right now,” Griffith said. “There are good folks everywhere; they like the community, but they don’t have the cash. They don’t have the gear. It’s very frustrating.”
If you or someone you know would be interested in supporting OBVFD, get involved by donating to its water tank fundraiser (email email@example.com) and visit its Facebook page for more information.