(WJHL) — A Tennessee law taking effect on January 1 could provide new state funding for volunteer fire departments.
Rep. Timothy Hill (R-Blountville) sponsored the bill and said it’s a first-of-its-kind grant program in the state for these agencies.
“It’s time for the state to step up,” Hill said. “This is long overdue.”
Gov. Bill Lee’s budget set aside half a million dollars. The 500-plus volunteer fire departments statewide can apply for a portion of these funds to put towards new equipment.
“There are some other states that have a similar program in place but it is funded at a much higher level than where we are in Tennessee,” Hill said. “But we’re just getting started.”
Hill is encouraging departments to apply based on need to justify bigger budget requests in the coming years.
Tim Bradshaw, the assistant chief for the Bloomingdale Volunteer Fire Department, said they plan to take advantage of the application.
“We have an ever-increasing need to rely on federal grants to function and operate,” he said.
Hill said the state funds can be used to pay for the local match needed to obtain federal grants.
For example, Bradshaw said replacing a firetruck costs about $600,000. He said the department would have to cover about $60,000 to replace a 27-year-old truck if they’re awarded a federal grant.
“If we’re going in debt then we’re putting that burden on the taxpayers in our community and sometimes they just can’t shoulder that responsibility,” Bradshaw said. “This law can remove that burden.”
Most volunteer fire departments receive the bulk of their annual funding from county governments, according to Hill. They’re often forced to fundraise to pay for capital needs.
Fall Branch Volunteer Fire Department Public Information Officer Myron Hughes said their budget often doesn’t cover the cost of training and periodic retraining. He said it’s also a challenge to upkeep personal protective equipment, which can run between $10,000 and $20,000 per firefighter.
“You’re looking at somewhere around 100 thousand dollars just to have boots on the ground that are capable and in the right equipment to fight fire,” said Hughes. “That does not include the maintenance cost of that equipment so just because you purchase it does not mean it’s a one time cost.”
Hill said the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance is not expected to release the grant application form for another couple of weeks even though the law takes effect on January 1.