Between their semiannual stews — when volunteers invest 24 hours cooking hundreds of gallons of stew to sell for $7 per quart — and operating and running a haunted house, volunteers at Blairs Fire and Rescue keep just as busy with fundraising as they do with operations.
In fact, their fundraising methods allow them to finance half of the department’s operations.
“There’s a lot of hours involved in just the fundraising aspect of it that a lot of folks don’t consider,” said Chief Dean Fowler, a volunteer of nearly 40 years.
Many of the fire and rescue departments in the county have periodic sales of such food as stew or barbecue. Jerome Cook, a 55-year veteran at Mount Hermon Volunteer Fire and Rescue, where he is considered the stew master, said they almost always sell out of their Brunswick stew weeks in advance of the cooking date. One Saturday of selling stew can bring in a profit of nearly $1,200.
Not only is the volunteer force in Pittsylvania County aging and declining, but those who remain have to spend ever-increasing hours trying to raise enough money to buy the equipment needed to keep communities safe in the first place.
With adjustments for inflation included, expenditures for local fire departments have increased 179% from 1980 to 2015, with the total costs coming to $45.8 billion nationwide in 2015, according to data from the United States Census Bureau.
Much of those hikes are because of the increasing cost of vehicles. Several county departments have had to buy new firetrucks in the past calendar year, each with sticker prices soaring to as much as $500,000. Of that cost, the county covered about $140,000 for each truck. H.F. Haymore, a longtime volunteer with Mount Hermon Volunteer Fire and Rescue, said the increase in costs is the biggest change he has seen during the past 55 years volunteering.
Since county funding hasn’t increased at that same level, departments have to get creative in generating the money needed to run the operation.
“I really think what you’re seeing in Pittsylvania County is a microcosm of what is happening across the commonwealth,” said Larry Gwaltney, executive director of the Virginia State Firefighters Association.
Another way departments raise money is sending donation letters, said Mike Neal, fire chief at Ringgold Volunteer Fire and Rescue.
“Not only are you volunteering to run calls, and you do that basically for nothing, but you have to depend heavily on donation letters,” he said.
The Ringgold department recently sent out 3,000 letters to the community that it covers, but not every station covers such a heavily populated area, which limits the financial impact the community can make.
“Some of [the departments] are in areas where they just don’t have a huge area to draw donations from,” said Chris Slemp, Pittsylvania County public safety director.
Departments also get state funding contingent on population through the Virginia Fire Fund, which is run through the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. For the 2020 fiscal year, which started July 1, Pittsylvania County is slated to receive $217,313 to be split between its 21 volunteer departments. Larger localities with larger populations receive a higher level of state funding.
“It’s the smaller localities with the smaller population bases that are struggling more,” Gwaltney said.
Another way departments can make money is through soft billing on their transport EMS calls. Per county protocol, departments can charge $16 for every mile a patient is transported in an ambulance, as well as lump fees of $550 for basic life support services and $750 for advanced life support services.
These bills go to the patient’s insurance company, and if the insurance company doesn’t cover the full cost or the patient doesn’t have insurance, the department sends the bill to the patient but does not force them to pay it.
“We’re not going to come after your credit, we’re not going to come after you,” said Ben Meeks, president of Gretna Fire and Rescue.
Gretna Rescue Squad received about 1,300 calls last year, but Meeks said they were paid for about 130, which amounts to nearly 10% of the calls.
“We take that money and we put it right back into the agency … so that we can come back and help the next person in the community,” he added.
The county does cover the insurance for every department and provides funding to cover a portion of each department’s expenses. Pittsylvania County Emergency Management changed the way it allocates and distributes funding for the stations for the 2019 fiscal year. Before, the county would pay for such expenses as fuel, electricity and tires on behalf of the department, while departments could dip into other funds for other needs.
Now, the departments each have allocated funds based on its three-year spending average. Those funds are then divided into three payments: 50% in August, 35% in January, and, if the department answers at least 70% of its calls, 15% in June.
So far during the 2020 fiscal year, five departments have answered fewer than 70% of the calls because of a lack of available volunteers: Chatham Rescue at 16%, Callands Fire and Rescue at 19%, Mt. Cross Fire and Rescue at 28%, 640 Rescue at 41% and Bachelor’s Hall Fire and Rescue at 54%. In each case, another department had to answer the call.
State, federal and private grants also are available for departments looking to make purchases and fund operations. For county agencies, the Danville-based J.T. Minnie Maude Charitable Trust provides frequent grants for departments in need of equipment.
“They’ve been really prominent in supporting the volunteer agencies,” Fowler said.
The only full-time, paid positions in Pittsylvania County are the director and deputy director of public safety as well as two fire marshals. For fiscal year 2019, the county spent nearly $900,000 funding a contract with the private, Appomattox-based Delta Response Team Ambulance Service — a company that staffs ambulances at Mount Hermon, Chatham, and Hurt at all times. The Danville Life Saving Crew and North Halifax Rescue Squad are also contracted to cover around the perimeter of the county on a per call basis.
There is no exact percentage of expenses the county covers for each department, Slemp said, but most years the county will fund $140,000 to each of two departments toward new fire trucks, in addition to the other regular expenses. For the purchase of new ambulances, which cost about $240,000 per vehicle, the county aims to fund $90,000 to each of two departments annually.
Slemp said his goal would be for the county “to handle the minimum of all things required for them to do the job safely,” but he doesn’t feel the county currently is up to that standard.
In an effort to improve and centralize county fire and rescue, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously during its September meeting to create a new fire and rescue ordinance, abolishing the Fire/Rescue Medical Services Advisory Committee and creating a Department of Public Safety.
Having one department over all the Pittsylvania County fire and rescue stations and emergency services is intended to help centralize operations and allow for more standardization of training, equipment and apparatus. The ordinance does not take any autonomy away from the individual departments.
“The new ordinance is a big step to getting everyone operating on one sheet of music,” he said.
One of the biggest changes is the creation of the fire and EMS commission, which would provide recommendations about fire and EMS systems and allow for collaboration among the different entities involved. The board of supervisors made recommendations for the commission’s nine members Tuesday: Ronald Scearce from the board of supervisors, four residents and four members of fire and rescue departments from different areas of the county.
“We got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re going in the right direction,” Scearce said.
While the commission will hit the ground running with plenty of projects, the largest and most important will be to create a strategic plan to acknowledge and tackle problems — both present and future — for Pittsylvania County fire and rescue agencies, Slemp said.
In the long term, part of that plan will be for the county to replace Delta Response Team Ambulance Service with a paid county provider and to improve local funding to the different departments, regardless of improvements in local funding,
“I think in order for volunteer fire and rescue to survive going forward, you have to keep your community involved in what you’re doing,” Neal said.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.