'We weren't anticipating this': Volunteer fire departments feel impact of rising fuel prices

Sierra Rains
Northwest Florida Daily News

Volunteer firefighters will sometimes travel more than 15 miles to aid with emergencies, but with diesel prices rising to almost $5 a gallon in some spots, many departments are feeling a squeeze on their budgets.

Baker Fire District Chief Brian Easterling said fuel costs have risen from $378 in February to around $800 in March. Standard fire trucks hold about 40 gallons of diesel fuel at a time, and even though the volunteer department gets a discount through the county, prices have gone up “a considerable amount.”

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Baker Fire District Chief Brian Easterling (left) and Battalion Chief Joey Lambert plug auxiliary power and air pressure hoses into one of the department's trucks. Easterling said he has seen his department's diesel fuel costs double over the past two months, which could lead to limiting responses to non-emergency calls in the 90-square-mile area it covers.

“It costs us more for each call we go on,” Easterling said. “It definitely is going to impact all of the volunteer departments' budgets. Our budget is just straight off the taxes, so that doesn’t fluctuate just because the gas prices go up. We’re kind of limited, so we have to make choices.”

Most volunteer departments in Okaloosa and Walton counties are funded by an annual special tax collected from residents in their coverage area. The amount varies by department, but is anywhere from $25 to $80 per household.

The Baker Fire District protects some 7,000 people across 90 square miles, amounting to about $200,000 in revenue, not including revenue from fundraisers and impact fees.

Most departments budget around $10,000 per year for fuel, which is among one of the largest expenditures next to new equipment and gear, repairs and maintenance, and insurance and utility costs.

“We weren’t anticipating this high of a rise,” Argyle Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jonathan Day said. “Summertime comes around and it normally goes up a little bit, and we anticipate that, but the gas prices as they are now going up a couple of dollars more than what they were.”

The Argyle Volunteer Fire Department has shifted around money normally used to purchase new equipment to help cover the cost of fuel, and other fire chiefs are looking at making adjustments if prices don’t go down soon.

Easterling said his department will be over budget by August if prices don’t drop.

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Baker Fire District Chief Brian Easterling shows off one of the department's firetrucks Friday. The volunteer fire department is one of several in the area that are trying to cope with rising diesel fuel prices.

“We’re going to have to do something drastic if they don’t come back down,” Day said. “We haven’t seen a dramatic issue as of yet, but with all the homes that are being built and the inflation of the gas and everyone coming into our district, it’s going to affect us.”

Liberty Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Dunham said units from his department will sometimes travel as far as Ponce De Leon and Freeport to assist other agencies.

Walton County Fire Rescue assists the Liberty Volunteer Fire Department with a brush fire  on U.S. Highway 331 on March 4. Volunteer fire departments are feeling the pinch of soaring diesel fuel prices.

Volunteer firefighters responded to a number of brush fires in early March, requiring thousands of gallons of water from tanker trucks. Each run uses up a large amount of fuel because the trucks only get about 5 miles a gallon and run on diesel.

The cost of diesel is more than $5 a gallon in some areas, and Dunham said his department's calls have only increased within the last few years. A large amount of the calls have been mutual aid.

“When they’re in a place with no water, they need our tankers,” Dunham said. “Sometimes it’s slow and sometimes it’s not. With all these brush fires, we’ve taken three or four trucks out there. Last year we ended up with almost 1,000 runs, and we usually average about 700.”

Fuel has cost the Liberty department around $1,200 this month. Dunham and other fire chiefs said they may have to start looking at limiting the number of trucks sent out to calls and their responses to minor incidents if fuel prices remain high.

In addition to the weight of the truck, firefighters and other equipment, Baker Fire District engines are also carrying 1,000 gallons, or approximately 8,300 pounds of water. The volunteer fire department is one of many in the area feeling the pinch of significantly higher fuel prices, which could mean cutting back on responses to non-emergency calls.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t go much higher because it’s going to limit some of our responses that we go to,” Easterling said. “Some of these fire service calls, if somebody’s got a tree down and they want help, we might have to limit some of those calls to just emergency calls.”

Easterling said the Baker Fire District has already begun cutting back on meetings to help volunteers save on their personal gas money used to get to and from the station. Some drive almost 10 miles from Crestview to Baker.

“It is going to have to come out of somewhere else,” Easterling said. “We report to the county commissioners, so they’ll have to decide on whether we’ll have to make cuts or where the money is going to come from. Right now, we’re just kind of biting the bullet.”

Despite the extra squeeze on the budget, Easterling said Baker is still “going to operate to the best of our abilities.” Individuals can help out by making donations. To find out more information, contact your local volunteer fire department.

“We’re here to serve. Whatever it is, we’re here to help,” Dunham said. “We’ll come do whatever we need, but if it gets more and more, we’re going to have to figure something out.”