Firefighters hit hard by gas prices   Posted on: Sunday, July 13, 2008, 6:53 AM

Firefighters hit hard by gas prices

13 July 2008

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USA — Faced with rising fuel costs and an intense fire season, local fire departments are seeking to cut costs without putting lives in danger.

The effects of fuel costs and large brush fires have been felt by local departments, but especially by volunteer fire departments that have been more active than expected.

Last weekend alone, Harker Heights had a 25-acre wildfire Saturday and Killeen had a 300-acre wildfire Sunday that kept more than a half-dozen departments occupied for hours.

The cost of fuel, coupled with increased fire activity, has compelled the Stillhouse Volunteer Department to make changes that Fire Chief Dale Hammerschmidt said could result in resignations.

His 16 volunteers usually have an opportunity to undergo summer training at Texas A&M, but this year he cut the program to save a few hundred dollars to make up for unexpected fuel costs. The annual trip serves as more than just training. It’s a short vacation that boosts morale and gives firefighters a reward for their unpaid service.

“If you’re not showing that your volunteers are appreciated, the morale goes down and some of them may actually resign from us not having the funds or having something to give back to say thank you,” Hammerschmidt said.

The problem could worsen if he has to cut back on the annual Christmas appreciation dinner.

He said last year they budgeted between $6,000 and $7,000 for fuel and have already spent double this year.

In addition, the two brush fires over the weekend not only cost the department about $500 in fuel, but it also lost a $150 tire and valuable firefighter energy.

“(For) anybody outside in this heat, it’s exhausting. For the Harker Heights fire we had people out for five and six hours in the heat. Not only the outside temperature being hot, but the additional heat from the fire and the protective clothing,” he said.

Harker Heights Fire Chief Jack Collier said that because of spending more than $20,000 more on fuel than last year, his department will need an adjustment by the city or will have to take money from another budget category to cover fuel costs.

He said last Saturday’s fire cost the department between $1,500 and $2,000 in overtime, but he hopes to recoup some losses through grant money.

Stillhouse and other fire departments faced with similar challenges insist that service will not be affected.

“The fuel costs, while that impacts our budgets, it’s nothing that’s going to stop us from responding in an effective manner,” Collier said.

Nolanville Deputy Fire Chief Mike Mayfield said fuel costs have tightened their budget, but have not been too much to handle because NVFD has a small fleet and hasn’t had to respond to many fire calls in Nolanville.

The department already conserves fuel because trucks don’t run unless they are responding to a call, Mayfield said. In addition, NVFD doesn’t send a fire engine out to a medical emergency unless it’s necessary. Instead, they use a Ford Crown Victoria as a medic unit.

While fuel is a hot topic, local fire chiefs also are concerned about the lack of rainfall. Mayfield said the area could see fires similar to California’s wildfires but on a smaller scale over the next month or so.

“I predict that if we keep having the ones that we are having, it’s going to hurt a lot of the volunteer companies,” Mayfield said about the weekend fires. “If we don’t get any more rain, we’re going to have a hell of a grass fire season.”

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