An example of some of the equipment used my the Lafayette Township fire department.  Don Knight | The Herald Bulletin

An example of some of the equipment used my the Lafayette Township fire department. Don Knight | The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON — Backing up a fire engine at the Lafayette Township Volunteer Fire Department is no small feat. It requires a spotter and an eagle-eyed driver.

"Hey can you spot me? I have to basically touch that truck's bumper," firefighter and EMT Shaun Wilson said. "I'm not really exaggerating."

He wasn't. Less than 10 inches remained between the bumper and the caboose of the engine, and fewer than that between the engine's face and the closed garage doors. 

The tight squeeze illustrates a very real problem that the fire department, like many other volunteer township departments, face, said Wilson, who also serves as the station's public information officer. They're low on resources, tight on space and pinching pennies for grant funding.

The Lafayette Township department is under construction to expand the facility, adding three bays and a mezzanine area.

"You can see we're running out of room here," he said. "This was the most pressing issue, but it's by no means the only one."

While patients have to consider their medical insurance, fire departments have to consider their departmental insurance. Chesterfield-Union Township Fire Department spends approximately $40,000 a year on one insurance policy, Chief Jamey Burrows said.

"Running a fire department is expensive," he said.

An additional cost to insurance is general overhead. Running the building, maintaining the equipment and training the roster adds up, Burrows said.

Equipment, from fire hoses to air tanks, must be inspected and approved by a third party annually. Turnout gear — what firefighters wear during fires — needs to be replaced every 10 years. New engines and ambulances can cost between $500,000 and $750,000 apiece.

"Even with worker's comp, we have to make sure we have enough coverage for every person on our roster," he said. "It's a dangerous job and people get injured. These are big expenses that may be forgotten."

There are 11 volunteer fire departments in Madison County. Funding, equipment, roster and compensation depend on the department. For example, Lafayette Township depends entirely on its tax base. Chesterfield depends heavily on its tax base with assistance from a grant. The Lapel Stony Creek, Pipe Creek and Richland Township fire departments have received grants.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awards several grants to fire departments, including the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant and Fire Act Grant. Chesterfield is in its third year of a four-year grant from FEMA, and Richland received a SAFER grant last year, which allowed it to offer Advanced Life Support ambulance runs, Richland Township public information officer Debbie Gates said.

Ambulance rides range in costs depending on insurance. The average ambulance trip covered by Medicare runs approximately $400 plus about $7.50 for each mile traveled. Private insurance rides can average between $900 and $1,500, depending on what kind of medical care is needed and how far the truck will travel, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

How much a patient is billed for a ride depends on the department, according to Indiana state code. The township trustee, along with the their board and fire department, decides what taxpayers will be charged.

For instance, Wilson said, some departments will itemize equipment rental on a bill for something like using a saw. Lafayette Township, and most departments in Madison County, don't do that, he said. 

"For us it's a philosophy thing," he said. "We serve our taxpayers and they pay a fire protection tax. Philosophically, their tax should cover our services. Because of that, we only charge the raw costs."

Those raw costs add up. Many medical runs involve disposable equipment like an intubator, a tube used to supply oxygen directly to the lungs, which costs $43 apiece.

"The smaller the department, the bigger the costs," Wilson said. "We try to tack on with (Anderson Fire Department's) orders to save us money."

Even though the first responders joined as volunteers, departments try to compensate when they can, Wilson said. Every Lafayette Township first responder makes $5 a run.

"Ultimately, you'll make $5 an hour, at best," he said. "Even with short, simple calls, we'll have at a minimum three hours of paperwork. With massive structure fires, it can quickly become negligible."

Chesterfield pays volunteers for stand-by time and per run. Burrows said most fire departments' budgets come down to about 80 percent personnel-related expenses, whether it be compensation or training.

"You've got to pay them something just to make it worth it," he said. "It's not that people don't want to volunteer, it's just not like it used to be. These people are working two, three jobs just to (get) by for their families.

"They would do it anyway, but we have to find a way to pay them."

-30 -

© 2019 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.