Future of East Texas volunteer fire departments could be on the line

ANGELINA COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - There are nine different volunteer fire departments in Angelina County and without enough funding it's is hard to keep the station up and running.

In 2011, the Bearing wildfire was the third largest fire in East Texas history. During a time when more than 14 hundred acres were burning, Governor Rick Perry announced a budget cut, from $30 million to $7 million to volunteer fire departments. Thursday, that cut could be deeper.

"We're expected to have 90 million dollars in the volunteer fire departments assistance fund 5064 on August 31, and we're granted to collect another 30 million dollars per year. Yet, we're only appropriating in the current budget," State Representative David Simpson said.

If the house votes to approve the appropriations budget, roughly only $18 million per year will be available for the entire state to use. That would affect more than 70 percent of firefighters in Texas that are volunteers.

"If that doesn't get reinstated, it's going to be bad and of course they're already predicting another 2011 this summer," Central Fire Chief Dennis Cochran said. "Even reinstating the money this year won't help us this year. That's how crucial it's going to be."

Without enough funding volunteers would have to seek help elsewhere.

"Volunteers would have to spend more time on fundraisers and whatever they can to make money so they can operate," Huntington Fire Chief Jerry Lasalle said.

Many volunteer fire departments in East Texas seek funds from a cost-share program the Texas Forest Service provides to help with necessities such as firefighting vehicles, fire and rescue equipment, protective clothing, dry-hydrants, computer systems and firefighter training.

Fire trucks can cost more than $200 thousand. If budget cuts continue, a vehicle that is used to put out house and grass fires will be of the past.

"I'm hoping they'll reinstate our funds and put our money back in that grant so us as volunteer fire departments can continue applying for trucks and other necessities," Cochran said.

Simpson's has proposed five Amendments for volunteer fire department funding, #830651, #830654, 830655, #830656, #830692, for assistance of $30 million per year for 2014 to 2015.

"Currently, funding comes from a fee that's collected from property that's based on premiums for home owners, farms, and ranches, and other insurance policies. It's actually just been increasing in helping other funding and not actually volunteer firefighters," Simpson said.

He wants to help volunteers state-wide by replenishing their equipment, resources, and providing training for the next fire season.

"It means a lot. It could make or break a volunteer fire department. Most volunteer fire departments live on a very limited budget and we work for free. It's at the mercy of the people that donate," Cochran said.

Volunteer firefighters are the first responders for fires and accidents in rural areas and without funding East Texas communities face dangers similar to those in 2011.

You can sign the online petition asking Governor Perry to reinstate the 75 percent budget that was cut.  www.signon.org/sign/reinstate-funding-for-1.

Thursday, the appropriations budget for volunteer fire departments will be voted for or against by the house and volunteers are hopeful funds will be increased and not decreased.

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