State struggles to fund Texas’ volunteer fighters

Joshua Fechter

Nearly two weeks before the April 17 explosion in West killed 15 people, including 12 volunteer first responders, Texas lawmakers voted against providing additional funds to the state’s 1,505 volunteer fire departments.

The Texas House of Representatives voted April 4 to table three amendments to the Senate’s proposed budget that could have allocated about of $6.5 million to the Rural Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program. The program provides funding to volunteer departments — such as the West Fire Department — for firefighter training, protective clothing and rescue equipment.

Under current budget proposals, the program would receive $36 million to $37 million in the next two years, less than the $60 million the Texas Legislature allocated for the 2010-11 biennium, but more than the $27 million allocated for the 2012-13 biennium.

It also falls shy of the $150 million in backlogged requests — some of which date back to 2004 — from volunteer fire departments across the state.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, authored the amendments to the current budget bill. He said he believes some lawmakers voted against the amendments to use funds from the program’s account for other purposes.

“Doing this by accident or neglect is bad enough, but to do it knowingly is egregious,” Simpson said.

Two of Simpson’s amendments would have provided about $6.5 million during the next two years from the state’s Volunteer Fire Department Assistance account, which contains revenue set aside for the program. Another would have allocated $1.2 million to the program from the account.

The account will have $80.9 million by the end of the state’s fiscal year, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts’ biennial revenue estimate published in January.

“We’re just trying to use money that’s already been collected,” Simpson said.

The budget bill was approved by the House, but differences between the House and Senate versions must now be ironed out in a conference committee composed of senators and representatives.

Simpson said he has spoken to state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who serves on the conference committee, to encourage him to consider adding additional funds to the program.

While lawmakers debate the increase, the Texas A&M Forest Service, which administers the program, has had to readjust its priorities in the face of decreased funding.

Jason Keiningham, Texas A&M Forest Service program coordinator, said the service has focused on providing training and protective clothing to departments since the Legislature decreased funding in 2011, limiting what the service could provide.

“[Firefighters] just want the basic tools,” Keiningham said. “All they want to do is protect life and property.”

Chris Barron, executive director of the State Firemen’s & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, said many rural areas do not have the tax base to pay their fire departments like some larger communities.

Barron said of the state’s fire departments, 1,505 are composed strictly of volunteers, 140 employ their firefighters and 290 combine career firefighters and volunteers into their force.

“That’s why state funding is greatly needed and important,” Barron said. “A lot of people don’t know there are a lot of poor departments out there.”