Close to 80-percent of fire departments in Tennessee are made up all volunteer firefighters. These men and women give up their time and risk their lives for their neighbor.
“If you don’t have the fire department,” said Del Kennedy, Chief of the Andersonville Volunteer Fire Department, “you’re going back to the 1800s when you were relying on your neighbors with buckets of water to try to help you out.”
The volunteers who come to save homes and lives don’t hesitate to rescue those who need it.
“We do this to help our fellow man,” said Assistant Chief John Linsenbigler of the Seymour Volunteer Fire Department. “You have to have it in your heart number one.”
Still, communities they serve are reluctant to financially support their efforts. It’s a common theme across the country and here in East Tennessee. Volunteer fire departments struggle to stay open.
“Only about 18% of the people right now donate routinely for operational expenses,” said Linsenbigler. That’s just enough to keep them afloat.
Volunteer firefighters say they think people are confused by how they’re funded.
“They may not understand when they move into the area. They think they have a fire tax or certain services are already paid for through property tax,” said Linsenbigler. “But in some counties, especially in Knox County, that’s not the case.”
“Simply because it says volunteer it doesn’t mean everything is free. It means the people of this department volunteer their time. We have to pay for everything,” said Kennedy.
The volunteer departments need donations and grants to survive.
The Seymour VFD covers roughly the same size as the city of Knoxville. But, KFD receives support through tax revenue.
Seymour operates on a $500,000 annual budget. Knoxville has close to $40-million in its annual budget. That’s 80 times more.
Seymour firefighters say they could use more money, but they admit they’re better off than most other volunteer departments. The department has received major grants that help them recruit new members. Those grants also help pay for expensive training and gear.
The Andersonville Volunteer Fire Department is much smaller. Chief Kennedy is expecting to make some tough calls in the near future.
“We’re looking at probably June not being able to put fuel in the trucks,” said Kennedy. Even worse, he worries they may not be able to go on first responder calls by this summer if fundraising continues at its current rate.
“That puts us between a rock and a hard place.”
Kennedy has saved lives as a first responder. He says 80-percent of the time, his volunteers arrive before the ambulance. He doesn’t want to have to cherry pick which calls they can his department can work.
“A lot of times people don’t realize the medic may be down to one medic per county. Your next closest medic may be coming from Oak Ridge,” said Kennedy. “So your first responders provide vital care for the patient especially if it’s a cardiac situation.”
Andersonville VFD attempted a subscription service two years ago. It would require residents to pay a fee to cover expenses. Community members could opt-out but then the fire department is not required to help them in case of an emergency.
The community did not welcome the subscription fees, and the department decided to switch back to donations only.
Unless the volunteer departments get more donations, Kennedy says they may have to close, even though his volunteers want to keep working.
“I know myself and other members of this department will continue to [work] with our personal vehicles. You know that’s the volunteer spirit,” said Kennedy.
This year, the Knox County Commission created a committee of experts and fire chiefs to look deeper into ways to improve fire protection. It is still in the beginning stages.