Local

Fire departments find ways to cope with energy costs

In January, it cost about $400 to fuel the trucks at the Robinson Volunteer Fire Department in northeast Mecklenburg County.

By June, the monthly bill had risen to nearly $1,000.

“We were going to have to cut somewhere,” recalled Chief Robbie Honeycutt.

Honeycutt said the department started using smaller trucks on some calls to stretch money for fuel. Some station maintenance, such as painting, has also been delayed. If things get worse, Honeycutt said the department could take money out of the training budget to pay for fuel.

Across the country, many small fire departments are struggling to keep up with diesel fuel costs that have gone up more than 60 percent in the past year. The problem grew more noticeable in the past month or two, said some local firefighters.

The rising fuel costs are particularly hard for cash-strapped volunteer fire departments, who often rely on fundraisers to help cover their expenses. “A lot of these (departments) are already struggling financially,” said David Finger, the vice president for government affairs for the National Volunteer Fire Council in Washington. “This is just heaped on top of it.”

In the Charlotte area, a gallon of diesel fuel averaged $4.80 earlier this week, compared with around $4.75 a month ago, according to AAA. Diesel cost around $2.90 per gallon this time last year.

In trying to cut costs, the heads of local fire agencies stress they won't do anything to compromise public safety. Rather, they say, they're making more subtle changes, including using pickup trucks for medical calls or to run errands.

The smaller trucks often hold the same medical equipment and are more fuel efficient, getting at least twice as many miles per gallon as the large engines.

In Gaston County, Cherryville Fire Chief Jeff Cash said his department will only use the smaller trucks if there are enough firefighters back at the station to respond to a fire. The department also has asked firefighters to not let the engines idle when unnecessary and to bring meals from home instead of using the large trucks to get lunch or dinner.

He said hopes these and other changes will trim about 5 percent from fuel costs. The city-funded department also got an 11 percent boost to its fuel budget this year.

At the Providence Volunteer Fire Department, Deputy Chief Dave Banick said the department has not made any changes to how firefighters respond to calls. But he said worries are setting in.

“Eventually it could become a big problem for us and a lot of other departments,” said Banick, whose station serves portions of Union and Mecklenburg counties. “A lot of us are on a fixed income, so eventually it's going to start hurting a lot.”

Help could come from the federal government.

Bills have been introduced recently in Congress to help volunteer departments cope with fuel costs. Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican from Concord, has proposed increasing the mileage-rate tax deduction for firefighters responding to emergencies from 14 cents a mile to 44.5 cents.

Another plan would reimburse volunteer fire departments up to 75 percent of the difference between current fuel prices and those last December. That could cost about $50 million a year.

“What is the cost of not doing it?” said Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania who co-sponsored the proposal. “I don't want some rural family on some rural road experiencing a fire and a vehicle running out of gas and someone dying.” McClatchy Newspapers Washington correspondent Barbara Barrett contributed.

In January, it cost about $400 to fuel the trucks at the Robinson Volunteer Fire Department in northeast Mecklenburg County.

By June, the monthly bill had risen to nearly $1,000.

“We were going to have to cut somewhere,” recalled Chief Robbie Honeycutt.

Honeycutt said the department started using smaller trucks on some calls to stretch money for fuel. Some station maintenance, such as painting, has also been delayed. If things get worse, Honeycutt said the department could take money out of the training budget to pay for fuel.

Across the country, many small fire departments are struggling to keep up with diesel fuel costs that have gone up more than 60 percent in the past year. The problem grew more noticeable in the past month or two, said some local firefighters.

The rising fuel costs are particularly hard for cash-strapped volunteer fire departments, who often rely on fundraisers to help cover their expenses. “A lot of these (departments) are already struggling financially,” said David Finger, the vice president for government affairs for the National Volunteer Fire Council in Washington. “This is just heaped on top of it.”

In the Charlotte area, a gallon of diesel fuel averaged $4.80 earlier this week, compared with around $4.75 a month ago, according to AAA. Diesel cost around $2.90 per gallon this time last year.

In trying to cut costs, the heads of local fire agencies stress they won't do anything to compromise public safety. Rather, they say, they're making more subtle changes, including using pickup trucks for medical calls or to run errands.

The smaller trucks often hold the same medical equipment and are more fuel efficient, getting at least twice as many miles per gallon as the large engines.

In Gaston County, Cherryville Fire Chief Jeff Cash said his department will only use the smaller trucks if there are enough firefighters back at the station to respond to a fire. The department also has asked firefighters to not let the engines idle when unnecessary and to bring meals from home instead of using the large trucks to get lunch or dinner.

He said hopes these and other changes will trim about 5 percent from fuel costs. The city-funded department also got an 11 percent boost to its fuel budget this year.

At the Providence Volunteer Fire Department, Deputy Chief Dave Banick said the department has not made any changes to how firefighters respond to calls. But he said worries are setting in.

“Eventually it could become a big problem for us and a lot of other departments,” said Banick, whose station serves portions of Union and Mecklenburg counties. “A lot of us are on a fixed income, so eventually it's going to start hurting a lot.”

Help could come from the federal government.

Bills have been introduced recently in Congress to help volunteer departments cope with fuel costs. Rep. Robin Hayes, a Republican from Concord, has proposed increasing the mileage-rate tax deduction for firefighters responding to emergencies from 14 cents a mile to 44.5 cents.

Another plan would reimburse volunteer fire departments up to 75 percent of the difference between current fuel prices and those last December. That could cost about $50 million a year.

“What is the cost of not doing it?” said Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania who co-sponsored the proposal. “I don't want some rural family on some rural road experiencing a fire and a vehicle running out of gas and someone dying.” McClatchy Newspapers Washington correspondent Barbara Barrett contributed.

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