The all-volunteer Haletown Fire Department in Marion County, Tennessee, is seeking a subscription fee for fire service in its district so resident subscribers can avoid the response fees charged to nonsubscribers.
The basic fee is $35 per year for a residential home or commercial building between 40 and 4,000 square feet, Haletown Fire Chief Freddie Barnhill said Tuesday in a phone interview. He said as a nonprofit, donations to the department are tax deductible, and a list of charges for fire services ranges from a few hundred dollars to thousands that could be avoided with the $35 subscription fee.
Barnhill said it's important to note the lack of a subscription doesn't mean firefighters won't respond to a fire at a nonsubscriber's property.
"Regardless if a resident has paid or not, when those tones drop we're coming," Barnhill said, referring to the radio alert that uses audible tones to designate specific responders being notified.
The department, which ran about 120 calls in 2021 and more than 90 calls in 2022 that included a fatal boat fire at a marina, gets about $40,000 a year from the county government and some money through fundraisers and donations, but inflated expenses continue to exceed the department's finances, Barnhill said.
The department's annual operating costs are about $39,000, and it has 12 volunteer firefighters.
"It takes money not just to upgrade this equipment; it's expensive to maintain it and to train firefighters," Barnhill said.
In December, Marion County got a $420,000 grant that was combined with $89,000 in local funding and distributed to all 14 of Marion County's volunteer fire departments.
"The cost of doing business as a volunteer fire department is just getting out of hand just like everything else with increasing costs," Marion County Mayor David Jackson said Tuesday in a phone interview. "Each rural fire department is an independent fire department, and they're not chartered to the county, it's their charter. Hopefully, it will generate some revenue for them."
Jackson said an annual fee of $35 is reasonable, but he also noted there would be some on fixed incomes or those who are out of work and can't afford to pay for fire service.
Barnhill said his department used $37,500 in grant money to purchase four new self-contained breathing apparatus systems, one of a firefighters' most important pieces of personal safety equipment. According to firefighting standards, Barnhill said, the equipment most firefighters refer to as an air pack should be replaced at least every 16 years, and sometimes firefighting gear breaks, too, forcing unplanned replacement.
"It costs roughly $3,600 to outfit one firefighter, and that's just turnout gear," Barnhill said. "The recommendation for replacement from the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) is every 10 years, However, what happens if one of my firemen gets a tear or burn in their turnout gear, and it has to be replaced? Sometimes air packs have to be repaired or even replaced. Even a refurbished air pack is $800 or $900. All this equipment is expensive."
The Haletown fire hall's primary firefighting equipment consists of a 1996 1,000-gallon pumper truck, a 1997 1,275-gallon pumper truck and a 1989 3,000-gallon tanker that needs to be replaced, Barnhill said, noting the district has only five fire hydrants. The department has applied for a grant for a new tanker, but there are no guarantees of getting it, he said.
Safety is the priority behind the fee, he said.
"I have two main concerns, and that's the safety of my men and the safety of the community, and I'm going to do whatever is necessary," he said, noting the department is working toward having the capability to respond on medical calls. "I've got 12 people who would lay their lives down if it was asked of them. Four are EMTs, and they all have a passion like nothing I've ever seen."
For unsubscribed residents, the Haletown Fire Department has established billing for services, according to a news release on the fee intended to offset the department's estimated $39,000 in annual operating costs.
The charge is $503 per hour per fire apparatus on the scene and $62 per hour for each firefighter, according to the department billing list included in a news release on the fee. Vehicle incidents are $546-$660, and response by the chief is $315. Extrication in an accident is $1,641, and establishing a landing zone for a medical helicopter is $502. A hazardous materials response is $881-$7,426, and if a fire investigator is needed, that's $346. Water rescues are $503 to $1,006, and extinguishing unpermitted fires is $503, according to the list.
The $35 annual fee covers every resident living in the residence and any call involving them within the department response district, according to the news release.
Barnhill's vision for the department includes adding rescue capabilities, a rescue-fire boat and some level of emergency medical treatment capability, he said. Those ideas are still in the works.