Volunteer firefighters give an incredible amount of time to saving us from whatever tragic event might befall us -- a house fire, a car accident, an injury, a flooded basement. When the call goes out they leave what they are doing, be it a family picnic or a kid’s baseball game, to do what needs to be done, to do what too few do.
Beyond that devotion of time to the task at hand, there’s also the time invested in preparing to do those things – training, certification, equipment maintenance and more.
Then, there’s something that takes up just as much time, if not more, than all of that service combined, something that’s done out of necessity to continue to provide the services they are: Fundraising.
Your typical homeowner served by a volunteer fire company rarely puts much thought into what volunteers have to do to keep that fire company afloat. They might wrongly assume that since volunteer labor is “free” there must be no cost associated with firefighting.
Oh, how wrong they are.
Volunteers must devote hours and days to holding bingo and meat and gun raffles, while also offering hall rentals and food to weddings and special events, because there are so many costs associated with being there for the community. They include but are not limited to hall maintenance, utilities, investments in and preventive maintenance of firefighting vehicles, various insurance policies, outfitting and upkeep of personal equipment, education, certification and legal fees.
Obviously, with such workloads on the scene and behind the scenes, it’s stressful enough for these men and women to do what they do, day after day, for us in normal times.
Now, throw the COVID pandemic into the mix.
Because of it, local fire companies are in incredibly difficult financial positions. The same lockdowns and protocols that have crippled or closed for good small businesses are also impacting first responders. They haven’t been able to hold raffles, rent their halls, or run bingo. The impacts have been staggering.
Consider the crises faced by two local fire companies.
Gratwick Hose is located in North Tonawanda and is just down the street from my place of business. They are one of six volunteer companies in a city of 30,000 residents that also features 5 paid professional fire stations. Gratwick’s responsibilities are large, as they protect not only residences, but also a handful of factories, special events at Gratwick Park, and accidents that occur on busy River Road. What they do requires a huge investment…one that’s taken a huge hit: Because of the loss of special events, raffles and rentals they’ve lost out on $125,000 in revenues with two months yet to go this year.
Wolcottsville Fire Company is located on the other end of Niagara County. Wollcottsville is a hamlet of around 400 people, but the fire company also serves the adjoining rural area (and a couple thousand more residents) as well as the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area, where searches-and-rescues are often done. The company’s vast district is around 30 square miles in size, so there’s great demand on equipment and people to get the job done. They are down $50,000 on the year, a number certain to grow, especially with their popular December raffle having to go online.
Those are just two fire companies. There are 28 such enterprises in Niagara County alone, and hundreds more across the state. Every one of them, from small towns to small cities, are faced with this financial difficulty.
What are they to do?
The cost of doing business, the cost of doing good, is still there. You just can’t turn off the lights or not turn on the sirens. It’s not as if COVID has stopped fires, car accidents, and general accidents. As a matter of fact, its stressors have increased the demand in certain categories such as overdoses and injuries from domestics that firefighters and their EMS brethren must tend to.
In response to COVID, fire companies everywhere have depleted their rain day funds and bank accounts. They are leaning on any endowments and investments they might have. Their members have been kicking in their own money to help the bottom line.
What can we do as a society to save the savers?
One, we can begin to have the conversation with our towns and counties about fully funding fire companies, which we already fund in part through taxes. No one wants to hear about raising property or sales taxes but what basic expectations do you have with local government? It’s typically roads and safety. Fund that critical expectation and we’ll save volunteers from the countless hours of fundraising to keep their higher calling -- and us -- alive.
Secondly, we can demand that Governor Andrew Cuomo release $3 billion in CARES Act and other federal funds that he has held hostage. A billion of that, earmarked for “other” use, could go to counties and towns that were blocked from earlier recovery funding. They could then aid the fire districts.
Lastly, we can give. When some sense of normalcy returns, let’s go back to attending those fun raffles and bingo. In the meantime, we should add to our annual year-end giving donations to our local fire companies. $5. $50. $500. Any amount helps, especially if we all chip in.
Our volunteer fire companies are in need. It’s time we stepped up to help them.
If we don’t, who will be there to help us?
From the 02 November 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News