Maryland volunteer fire companies struggle with donations, fewer volunteers

GLEN BURNIE, Md. - Paying $200 out of pocket for a $9,600 thermal imaging camera sounds like a deal to James Evans, chief of the Orchard Beach Volunteer Fire Company.

The station has received $9,400 in grants to buy a new camera, which uses infrared technology to see through smoke and darkness.

Evans, chief of the Anne Arundel station since 2009, said its current camera is 11 years old. They should be replaced every five years.

But like many volunteer companies, the extra cash just isn’t there, in part due to economic fluctuations and a lack of community involvement.

Orchard Beach reported revenues of $76,942 in fiscal year 2013, according to Guidestar, an online database that catalogs non-profit organizations’ tax records. Its expenses were $99,608.

“You can’t put a price on someone’s life,” Evans said. “But you can put a price on what it takes to run a fire company.”

For the average volunteer fire company, that’s about $240,000 a year, said Jackie Olson, president of the Maryland  State  Firemens’ Association and a member of the Ferndale Volunteer Fire Department in Glen Burnie.

Olson said Maryland’s volunteer fire companies get some funds from their county and through the state’s Senator William H. Amoss Fire, Rescue, and Ambulance Fund, which has $11.7 million in it this year. And then there are grants like the one Orchard Beach got.

But consider the state has more than 300 volunteer fire companies, and those resources are spread thin, Olson said. She said she wants to lead a group of volunteer firefighters to march on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis before the General Assembly session ends, armed with pieces of equipment with price tags attached.

Just the gear for a firefighter costs about $4,600, which most people don’t realize, she said.

Getting creative

Strapped for cash, local fire companies are finding creative ways to raise money.

“You can only have so many chicken dinners and spaghetti dinners and bingos,” Olson said.  

The Middle River Volunteer Fire Co. in Baltimore County is selling ad space on the side of its trucks to local businesses .

SEE ALSO: Middle River Volunteer Fire Company sells ad space

The station has also talked about merging with the Middle River Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue, because both agencies are in older buildings that need a lot of work, Middle River Volunteer Fire spokesman Bill Connelly said.

In 2010, Orchard Beach sold its ladder truck, which firefighters used about 10 times a year, to knock out hundreds of thousands of dollars in lease payments for other equipment.

“It was a real plus from a business perspective,” Evans said.

The Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Company has hired a consultant to go door to door to solicit donations. As an incentive, anyone who donates also gets their portrait taken at the fire department, vice president and public information officer Marci Catlett said. The consultant costs money, but all of the proceeds go directly to the fire department, she said.

Catlett said the department used to solicit mail order donations twice a year, but they started losing money on the drive because no one was sending anything. The department only sends out mail order solicitations once a year now.

Olson said that’s a problem volunteer companies are experiencing statewide.

“You can’t always keep drawing from the well, which is the community you serve,” she said.

Allen Roody, the president of the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company, said donations to the company have remained steady, possibly because the station serves an affluent area. 

But then again, more houses are being built within the station's coverage area, so the need is bigger, Roody said. 

So are equipment prices. The station needs to replace its 15-year-old ladder truck, which was purchased for $650,000. The same type of truck costs $1.3 million today due to new safety standards and other requirements.

That's not an amount that can be easily raised doing a few car washes, Roody said.  

At Orchard Beach, fundraising has been an adventure, Evans said. The station’s fundraising efforts range from bingo to hall rentals, but Evans said there’s not a ton of support from the community.

It could be because many people move to the area from out of state and don’t feel as connected to their local fire department.

Or it could be because people are busy with their jobs and have less disposable income.

“One of my lieutenants is in charge of community outreach, and one of the big things we’re focused on is just trying to get out into the community,” Evans said.

Kimberly Quiroz, spokeswoman for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said the local stations are feeling the effects of a national trend.

“I’m hearing that time and time again in the grant applications. The donation base is just less over the last few years,” Quiroz said. “I’m not surprised to hear that departments are thinking out of the box.”

Middle River tried hosting poker tournaments, and that worked out for a few months. But that was hard to sustain because it was hard to get station members

who wanted to work as dealers, Connelly said.

It seems to be harder to get people to volunteer at all, another side effect of the economy, station leaders said.

Less time to volunteer

Catlett has been a member of the Owings Mills department for 18 years as well as a lifetime member at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department.

In her early days as a firefighter, volunteers signed up in droves, she remembered. Stations had to turn people away because they didn’t have enough equipment.

It’s not like that anymore.

Catlett suggested it’s because people are busier, and the training to be a volunteer firefighter has become much more time consuming as technology has advanced.

And some firefighters are juggling two jobs. Of the 75 active volunteers at Owings Mills, about 20 have more than one job, Catlett said.  

Quiroz said the number of volunteers has been declining for several decades. The council estimates there are 13 percent less volunteer firefighters than there were in 1984, the first year the organization began tracking recruitment.

“Some of it is economic. To be a volunteer, you have to have free time, and if people are commuting and driving a long distance, or you have two jobs, that’s going to leave less time for volunteering,” she said.

Olson, also the volunteer coordinator for Anne Arundel County, said she hasn’t noticed a decrease in the number of people who want to volunteer. She gets about 300 applications from volunteer hopefuls each year, with about half going on to complete the training.

She has noticed, though, that volunteers seem to have less time to give.

“Where they might have had three nights to give, now they only have two, either because they’re working longer hours or they have two jobs,” Olson said. 

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