MILFORD — It should come as no surprise the COVID-19 pandemic is placing additional burdens on emergency responders. Less widely known is fire departments across the nation were already facing difficulties as a result of falling volunteer rosters and rising equipment costs.
The Lakeland area is no exception.
In the last 20 years, the numbers of volunteers nationally have fallen 15% while the number of calls have increased 300%, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Fire departments in Milford, North Webster and Syracuse are all heavily dependent on volunteers.
North Webster — Tippecanoe Township Fire Department Chief Jeremy Likens has been a firefighter for 27 years and chief since 2004. In that time, he said he has observed a “sharp decline.” One cause, he believes, is the extensive training volunteers need, which takes time from their families and jobs.
Likens also cited North Webster’s distance from major employers as a drawback. Volunteers, he said, already have to travel for work, and many employers are not willing to let people rush out of work to help stop a fire.
“Society’s changed from 50 years ago,” said Turkey Creek Fire Territory Chief Mickey Scott. Volunteers worked locally and most came from one income families, he explained.
Building materials have also changed drastically in that time. New synthetics, plastics and glues are good for builders but terrible for firefighters when they burn, requiring constant changes in equipment — particularly breathing protection — and driving up costs.
“The cost of equipment has just exploded,” said Likens. “If you are a small department with limited funding it’s hard to keep up with the changes.”
Just ask Milford Volunteer Fire Department Chief Todd Haines. Last fall, Milford’s self contained breathing apparatuses — SCBAs — no longer met state standards, and the department needed $140,000 to purchase new masks, air packs and 46 air bottles.
New building materials have led to highly toxic fires, Haines told the Milford council, “We have to be very passionate about this as firemen.”
Milford is partially funded by a combination of entities: Milford Town Council and Van Buren and Jefferson Townships. And they were all needed, along with a grant from Kosciusko Community Foundation and anonymous donors, to meet the cost. Part of the problem was much of Van Buren Township’s cumulative tax fund was already earmarked for a badly needed pumper truck.
“What isn’t expensive?” Likens asked rhetorically before enumerating approximate costs. A firefighter’s basic “turnout gear” — helmet, hat, coat, pants, gloves and boots — runs from $2,500-$3,000.
North Webster replaced its air packs in 2018. “It took a long time to replace them,” said Likens.
The best departments can do, Scott agreed, is “keep an eye on the equipment schedule and spread the cost out as much as possible.”
The problem is, as Likens observed of his new air packs, “In several years there could be changes.” New building materials will mean new regulations, new equipment and new training. “It’s challenging to keep up with that.”
In spite of generous donations and local fundraising, the vast percentage of funding comes from taxes.
“Taxpayers need to understand that equipment is their equipment,” Scott emphasized, “It belongs to all of us.”