NEWELL - Running a volunteer fire department is not as simple as it used to be.
There's the rising cost of workers' compensation insurance that departments must carry. There's the growing number of required training hours for firefighters. And then there's the ongoing need for new vehicles and equipment - a need that demands increasingly creative fundraising methods on the part of cash-strapped departments.
When faced with the purchase of a new pumper truck, the Newell Volunteer Fire Department decided to sell tickets for a prize drawing. Six hundred tickets have been sold so far, but the department must sell at least 2,000 for the drawing to go forward, Assistant Fire Chief Tim Steele said.
MEETING NEW SAFETY STANDARDS — Newell Assistant Fire Chief Tim Steele shows how air bottles are stored on the fire department’s older trucks. A new truck, due for delivery in November, will keep them more secure in accordance with new safety standards. -- Stephan Huba
"I don't think a lot of people know (about the fundraiser)," Steele said. "We want to make sure everyone realizes why we want to raise the money."
Proceeds from the drawing will go to the Newell VFD Truck Fund for the purchase of a new pumper truck. The 2012 truck is being manufactured by the Sutphen Corp. of Dublin, Ohio, and will cost the department $450,000, Steele said.
Scheduled for delivery in November, the truck will replace a 1995 rescue pumper that was recently sold by the department. A 1988 pumper, considered obsolete, also is up for sale.
"Trucks have a life span," Steele said. "After so long, you have to retire them and replace them. ... We felt it was time to upgrade for better protection for the citizens of Newell."
The department's fleet currently includes a 1999 pumper, a 1994 tanker, a river rescue boat, two smaller boats and a 2002 squad truck that's in the shop for repairs, Steele said.
The new truck is being built according to the department's specifications and will contain all the latest amenities and safety features. It will have seating for eight firefighters, an enclosed cab, secure storage space for helmets and air bottles, a computerized pump panel and air conditioning, Steele said.
The truck also will have a 10,000-watt generator, a Class A foam system, and the capacity to pump 1,750 gallons of water a minute, he said.
"It's just phenomenal," Steele said. "It's something we really needed."
What the department needs now is ticket sales. If 3,000 tickets are sold, the department stands to make $40,000 toward the purchase of the truck, Steele said.
This week, the department is direct-mailing a flyer about the fundraiser to 10,000 residents within a 10-mile radius of the fire station. Recipients will have the option to purchase tickets through the mail.
Steele said raising money for a new truck is one of the numerous financial challenges faced by volunteer fire departments in Hancock County and throughout the state. According to the West Virginia State Firemen's Association, an estimated 421 volunteer fire departments serve about 80 percent of the state's geographic area and 70 percent of its population.
Hancock County has six volunteer fire departments - Newell, Chester, Lawrenceville, Oakland, New Cumberland and New Manchester - and one paid department in Weirton. Newell's department has 12 active members, plus 11 retirees who are still available for calls. As volunteers, none of them are paid.
Steele said it costs $50,000 to $70,000 annually to run the department, although he did not have specific figures. The main expenses are insurance, utility bills, fuel, equipment purchases, and maintenance on equipment and the fire station, he said.
Volunteer fire departments across the state have seen their workers' compensation insurance premiums go up - in some cases by 300 and 400 percent - in the past two years, especially since BrickStreet Insurance, of Charleston, announced that, as of Sept. 1, 2010, it would no longer provide broadform liability coverage to volunteer departments.
Since then, the West Virginia State Auditor's Office has developed a Workers' Compensation Premium Subsidy Program to help local departments cover their insurance premiums. But Steele said the system is still flawed. "They really hammer the volunteers," he said. "Workers' compensation has just gone through the roof."
Another area of concern is a new set of rules that, according to the West Virginia State Firemen's Association and the West Virginia Municipal League, would overburden volunteer fire departments. The rules, promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association, would impose new standards on volunteers that currently apply only to paid full-time firefighters.
Some Hancock County firefighters are traveling to Charleston on Friday to voice their opposition to the standards at a hearing of the West Virginia State Fire Commission.
Even as costs go up, volunteer fire departments like the one in Newell continue to rely on fundraisers. The Newell VFD's biggest fundraiser is charitable bingo held at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday at the Wells building on state Route 2. The department has owned the building, formerly Wells Junior High School, since 1992, but it is not a reliable source of revenue, Steele said.
"It basically pays for itself," he said.
The building has six tenants and seven vacancies.
One longtime tenant, Northern Panhandle Head Start Inc., had to move out after its monthly rent went up from $1,125 to $2,000.
"Everybody got a rate increase," Steele said.
About 80 percent of the Newell VFD's budget comes from bingo and other fundraisers. The other 20 percent comes from a state tax, Hancock County's share of video lottery revenue, and private donations. The department recently received $26,000 from the East Liverpool-Fawcett Community Foundation for the purchase of new portable radios, truck radios and a base radio.
(Huba can be contacted at email@example.com)