Funding cuts put East Texas fire departments in a bind

Funding cuts put East Texas fire departments in a bind

20 September 2011

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USA — In the middle of the worst fire season in Texas history, state funding for the Texas Forest Service has been drastically cut.

It’s gone from $23 million a year in grants, to $7 million, and the cuts are trickling down to East Texas fire departments, making it harder for them to protect their communities.

The cuts are leaving departments across the state with the same problem – fighting bigger fires with old or outdated equipment. A brush truck at Dixie Fire Department is from 1984.

“I’ve been planning on this brush truck for like two years,” says Dixie Fire Chief Terry Rozell.

It’s a good thing he planned ahead, saving money for a new truck, because trucks are exactly what they won’t be getting in grants from the Texas Forest Service this year.

Robby DeWitt, Associate Director for Finance and Administration for the Texas Forest Service says, “Where we’re going to take the reductions is primarily in grants for trucks. With $7 million per year, the decision by the agency was to focus on firefighter safety.”

Starting next year, they’ll first fund training and personal protective equipment, like wildfire suits, which very different than the protective gear firefighters use in structure fires.

“The structure fire gear is so think you cant really use it out on the fire scene,” Chief Rozell says. “We’ve got some wild land gear but it’s old and its been used up and so we asked for some more about 6 months ago, and that’s when we got the letter saying well, right now we’re putting it on hold.”

Though the gear is what keeps firefighters safe, there’s an even bigger concern for the local departments – manpower.

“Going into the worst fire season of my 36 years of the business, I’m working with less personnel money,” Rozell says.

Dixie firefighter Eric Lowry remembers back to the day he spent fighting a massive fire in Jackson Heights, that burned down a whole neighborhood.

“We called for more man power and there was just nobody else available.”

The citizens may not see much of a difference now, as departments help each other to cover the slack created by minimal funding, but Chief Rozell worries, the future might be different.

“If things keep going and we start getting less revenue and we have to start cutting personnel, then they definitely will see a reduction in the service we give, because you can only do so much with the personnel we have.”

Dixie does have one newer brush truck. It’s only been there a year. It was funded by the Emergency Service District – but by next year, that funding will be severely cut too, putting departments like Dixie, and those across the county, in even bigger trouble than they’re in now.

Rozell says after this month’s disastrous wildfires, the state is reconsidering some funding requests for local departments.

Also, FEMA is meeting with the Smith County Fire Marshall Tuesday to discuss possible reimbursement for the recent fires.

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