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Volunteer fire departments are in desperate financial situations amid pandemic

Posted at 9:19 AM, Dec 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-16 12:19:01-05

A steady gust of a late autumn's wind is about the only thing moving quickly in rural corners of this country. But Pamela Curry has learned that the solitude she loves about her home in this remote part of Maryland can come at a price.

It was 2017 when the Curry family's home in rural Maryland caught fire. Curry, her husband and kids happened to be on vacation at the time.

"Everything you worked for, everything you had, was gone," the mother of four said while sitting on the front porch of the home she now lives in.

The first firefighters who arrived were from the Denton Volunteer Fire Company, a 10-mile drive from the Curry's home in Caroline County.

Todd Berneski was there that night and serves as the department's president.

"We’re here to provide a service to the community," Berneski said.

That service that Curry's and others in rural communities across the country depend on though has been struggling lately. Since COVID-19, this volunteer fire department and others nationwide suddenly lost revenue from yearly fundraisers. Denton Volunteer Fire Company is looking at a $70,000 budget shortfall right now.

What that means is that volunteer fire agencies nationwide are struggling to keep up with maintenance on equipment. While there are no salaries to pay, it still costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to run these departments.

All of it is putting the public at risk.

"If we show up and pumps don’t work or we don’t have tools, there’s nobody else to call," Berneski said about the constant struggle to keep aging equipment running.

Across the country, there are close to 25,000 volunteer fire departments, most of which serve as critical lifelines to rural communities. In Denton, they were able to hold their annual Christmas tree farm fundraiser, but their budget is still off by 25 percent.

"People want to give. We know they want to give, but if someone can’t afford to give, I don’t want to take a meal off of somebody’s table because they can’t afford it," Berneski added.

The National Volunteer Fire Council is worried about the long-term implications the funding gap could create. They've successfully lobbied Congress for millions of dollars in aid for volunteer departments, but the money is held up in the current stimulus bill.

The concern is that some agencies may be forced to close if they don't get help.

"You’re probably not going to know you have a problem until you have a very big problem," said David Finger, who works with the National Volunteer Fire Council.

As for Pamela Curry, she knows firsthand how vital these volunteer fire departments are and how critical it is to keep them running.

"Their equipment has to be running. If their equipment isn’t running and it’s not in good order, we won’t have machines to help us out,” Curry said.