By Bruce Barr
County GIS Analyst
Periodically, various articles from TAC’s “County Expenditures Survey" report for 2016 will be featured in the TAC Legislative County Issues newsletter. The survey question for this week’s article is on volunteer fire departments' costs.
What are the total expenditures for volunteer fire departments in your county?
According to the Texas Department of Insurance 2014 annual fire statistics report, Fires in Texas, there were 72,124 fires in 2014, resulting in nearly $663 million dollars in property damage.
The National Fire Protection Association reports that at least 69 percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers, and more than 75 percent of Texas firefighters are members of a volunteer fire department (VFD).
A VFD may be responsible for responding to structure fires as well as wildfires and automobile fires, both accidentally and intentionally set. Because it may be the only emergency services department for some distance, a rural VFD may also include other first responders, like emergency medical technicians, hazardous materials handlers and other specially qualified personnel.
In Texas, VFDs are financially supported in a variety of ways, including by funds raised in a city, town, county, fire district or other governmental entity, as well as corporate and other private donations, federal grants and other assistance from auxiliary members or firefighters’ associations.
Emergency Service District vs VFD
An Emergency Services District (ESD) is a political subdivision of the State of Texas with limited taxing authority. Depending on the ESD’s creation documents, an ESD can provide fire protection, emergency medical services or both. Ninety-two counties have at least one ESD.
Many VFDs are part of — and funded by — an ESD. Those VFDs that aren’t part of an ESD or a city are almost always largely funded by the county, even if it’s by assisting VFDs in meeting state and federal grant matching requirements or insurance.
As the population in Texas grows, so does the threat of both structure and wildfires. The risk comes not only from the growth in population, but also from where the high growth is occurring. The increase of development in the unincorporated areas of counties drives the costs of providing fire protection and emergency response.
Conversely, in the more rural, less populous counties, VFDs may be the sole provider of many services, including fire and emergency response, as well as support to local law enforcement. As the population of these counties decrease, stress is put on local VFDs. Fortunately, Local Government Code, Chapter 352, Sec.352.001 allows the commissioners court of a county to furnish fire protection or fire-fighting equipment to the residents of the county or of an adjoining county who live outside municipalities. The cooperation between counties and volunteer fire departments is essential to ensure a timely fire response capability countywide.
Significant Cost Factors
- New firefighting equipment
- Personal gear
- Equipment maintenance
- Communication equipment
- Other (some counties cover personal expenses such as volunteer firefighter’s insurance)
Impact on Counties
Smallest Rural Counties – Bracket E: (Twelve counties responded with a population less than 10,000.) Only two of the smallest counties have or are part of an ESD. These are the counties that contribute the most per population to support local VFDs and fund the majority of the county’s VFD functions. Annual county budgets for VFDs tend to remain fairly consistent. From 2014 to 2015, five E bracket counties reduced their VFD budgets, and five counties increased their budgets based on a combination of funding input from mutual agreements with neighboring counties and smaller incorporated cities, local fundraising and grants for communities under 10,000 populations like the Volunteer Fire Assistance Program.
Small Rural Counties – Bracket D: (Sixteen counties responded with a population from 10,001 to 25,000.) As a rule, the VFD budgets for the small rural counties correspond with the population fluctuations. Average county expenditures per person for VFD operations in 2015 were $6.25, considerably less than Bracket E. Four D Bracket counties have or are part of an ESD, and there are more, larger incorporated cities in these counties where the majority of the population and municipal emergency response resources are located.
Mid-Sized Counties – Bracket C: (Seventeen counties responded with a population from 25,001 to 100,000.) Again, as the county population increases, the county VFD budgets per person go down. In 2015, the Bracket C counties averaged $5.30/person and seven of the 17 responding counties have or are part of an ESD. Many mid-sized counties contain major metropolitan areas and are between rural and urban. While most of the population is covered by an ESD or city fire departments, subdivisions are increasingly extending into VFD response territories. Most of the county expenditures related to VFDs are for those units which cover gaps in the unincorporated county areas not under an ESD or for costs related to inter-local agreements.
Large Urban Counties – Bracket B: (Nine counties responded with a population from 100,001 to 1,000,000.) County expenditures average $4.11/person in the second largest counties and five counties have or are part of an ESD. Again, most of the county expenditures related to VFDs are for those units which cover gaps in the unincorporated county areas not under an ESD or for costs related to inter-local agreements, mutual aid agreements and one-off large capital expenses for support structures.
Largest Urban Counties – Bracket A: (No counties with a population greater than 1,000,000 responded.) The bulk of the large urban counties’ fire response is funded by ESDs or municipalities.
Other Relevent Data/Information
Operational volunteer fire department members receive some form of training. Many volunteer fire departments have training programs equal to that of paid departments. The specialty training can include wildland firefighting, technical rescue, swift water rescue, hazardous materials response, vehicle extrication and others.
The commissioners court of a county may contract with an incorporated VFD that is located within the county to provide fire protection to an area of the county that is located outside the municipalities in the county. The court may pay for that protection from the general fund of the county.
Even though fires, especially structure fires, occur more frequently in the more populous counties, the county expenditures for fire response per person are far greater in the smallest, most rural counties. Additionally, because of the extreme rural nature of the VFDs in these smallest counties, volunteer firefighters are trained to provide other essential services to their communities.
In many cases, counties are the major funder for VFDs not located within an ESD or a good-sized municipality, but even in the large counties with ESDs and large cities, annual budgets include considerable funding for VFDs.
For more information, contact , TAC County GIS Analyst, at (800) 456-5974.