Drought brings attention to firefighting challenges

by David Morgan, Lawrence County Executive

If you’re reading this, you probably know Lawrence County is in a severe drought. All of us have to be careful of actions that can start a fire, even deep-frying a turkey or pulling a vehicle into a field or lawn.

Unfortunately, posts on the “Lawrence County Fire & Rescue Tennessee” Facebook page show us the frequency of fire events in the county, and the pressure placed on those who man our 14 Volunteer Fire Departments.

Challenges facing VFDs have been brought to a head by this season of drought. The number of volunteers is decreasing while the county is growing and the need for services increases. In addition to fighting fires, volunteers assist in emergencies of every kind. Several have an Emergency Medical Responder designation and can provide immediate care before an ambulance arrives.

VFD numbers are falling because fewer people are joining. More choose not to spend their spare time training, answering emergency calls, and fundraising.

Yes, fundraising. Volunteer Fire Departments have significant operating costs: annual equipment testing alone costs thousands, just to maintain state compliance. That’s in addition to insurance, fuel, utilities, supplies, training, maintenance, replacing equipment and uniforms.

I am thankful County Commissioners voted in September to give $250,000 to complete the Jason Dickey Fire Training Center, a project of Lawrence County Fire & Rescue. I believe my friend Jason would be very proud to see the facility that’s named in his honor, and the benefits it provides to this community and others.

Lawrence County Fire & Rescue is a relatively new umbrella organization for our VFDs. Tyler McDow serves as Director and has been allocated an annual salary of $30,000 for the extraordinary amount of work it entails, in addition to running his own business. What does he do with that salary allocation? He gives it ALL back to Lawrence County Fire & Rescue.

I visited a recent class at the Jason Dickey Fire Training Center and asked how many had personally signed loans for their VFDs. About half of the 30+ there raised a hand.

Shortly after I took office, I established an Emergency Services Committee to hear the concerns of our paid and unpaid professionals. We are looking at ways other communities have dealt with dwindling volunteer numbers, aging equipment, and a lack of funding.

We are making efforts to create a county fire department and address our challenges in a more unified way. One organization would be more effective, more likely to get grants, and more cost-efficient than 14. We are already operating as one in many ways with Lawrence County Fire & Rescue.

Some communities are hiring firemen to man VFDs during the day, when most volunteers are working. We must consider doing the same. In a recent Facebook post, McDow wrote: “Many times a week our members are responding to calls from with dangerously low manpower. As unfortunate as it sounds, we take unnecessary risks to help our communities during their time of emergency.”

Ethridge VFD Chief Nathan Keeton recently tore his ACL and MCL in a volunteer fire rescue operation. This means he cannot return to full duty at Columbia Fire Department for eight months. The potential for injury, and worse, is always there for every firefighter, paid or unpaid. It’s time we address the challenges in our county’s firefighting operations, for everyone’s sake.

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