As budgets tighten and the rough economy continues, area volunteer fire companies are struggling with funding and a dip in donations needed to maintain, update and replace their equipment.
Hardest hit are the towns struck by Hurricane Sandy, where volunteer companies saw equipment and vehicles damaged in the storm.
"The fire company just bought $138,000 in new air packs, and we need to buy two trucks that total about $1.5 million," said Matt Letts, chief of the Beach Haven Volunteer Fire Company.
A pumper truck was destroyed during the storm, and a ladder truck is approaching its 25th birthday and will soon be out of service, Letts said.
"The ladder truck is not even made anymore, and to replace it will cost $1 million. Right now it's out for service, and we're not putting anyone in the ladder or bucket because of the repairs it needs," he said.
Located on the southern end of Long Beach Island, Beach Haven suffered extensive damage during Sandy. The department, whose members plucked residents from floods during the hurricane, responds to fire calls across Long Beach Island, but its primary coverage area is from 85th Street in Long Beach Township south through Beach Haven to the Holgate section of Long Beach Township.
Letts said he doesn't know how his company will raise the money to replace equipment needed to protect the community.
The department hired a grant writer, but grant awards have been few and far between, he said. The difficulty with grants is competing against other departments with bigger needs.
"Fundraising, donations from the community, stuff like that will help us, but it's tough being a volunteer fire company and relying on donations and fundraising," he said.
The department's 97th annual Turkey Dinner, the biggest fundraiser of the year, takes place Feb. 15. Last year the event brought in about $25,000, he said. The second largest event is the department's Block Party that takes place each October and nets about $20,000. Then there are the pancake breakfasts and T-shirt sales, but none of these efforts is enough to purchase equipment like firetrucks, he said.
Shane Parkins, executive director of the National Firefighters Endowment based in Sacramento, Calif., said many volunteer departments "who operate on a $6,000 annual budget do fish fries and pancake breakfasts, but that will only cover the cost of their fuel and that's basically it. It's not going to get you a fire engine."
Parkins said some small departments have a healthy tax base that results in more donations and municipal aid. But when it comes to securing grant funding, a large number of federal grants tend to favor the more sophisticated departments that can successfully put together a grant application, Parkins said.
"It takes training and ability to articulate the language for grants. There is a broad spectrum of challenges to securing funding to replace equipment," he said.
Funding for volunteer departments after Hurricane Sandy ran into roadblocks as some organizations filed for FEMA funding. Some received it and some didn't, he said.
Still, some smaller departments had adequate insurance to cover the replacement of equipment and others have been able to raise a small amount of money post-Sandy to purchase a used fire engine.
Following Sandy, the National Firefighters Endowment asked for donations to their Responder Relief Fund to provide assistance to affected departments. That money has been used to provide replacement equipment or financial aid to departments who suffered hardship in Hurricane Sandy's wake.
"There were so many incredible stories of heroism of volunteer firefighters swimming to neighbors' homes to check on them. They are volunteers, but it's the spirit of the volunteers you can't put a price on," Parkins said.
The Stafford Township Volunteer Fire Company is located on the Ocean County mainland across from Beach Haven, but it also saw the loss and destruction of equipment from Hurricane Sandy. The storm took fire rescue equipment, including dry suits, and the department is still waiting on insurance money, which could take as long as two years.
Fire Chief Jack Johnson said each year the money the department receives from the township helps to pay utilities and other bills at the firehouse. The funding can be used to purchase equipment, but doesn't cover a fraction of the cost, Johnson said.
"Right now we have three trucks that are rusting out from the storm that need to be replaced. One is 75-foot ladder truck, one is 3,000-gallon pumper tanker and another is a 1,000-gallon pumper tanker. We're talking between $500,000 and $650,00 for some of these vehicles," Johnson said.
As with the Beach Haven Volunteer Fire Department, the Stafford department holds fundraisers and donation drives twice each year. On March 14, they will hold their annual beef-and-beer dinner at the Holiday Inn on Route 72, where 100 percent of the proceeds are donated to the fire company.
But with the economy the way it is, donating makes it tough for everybody, Johnson said.
Pomona Volunteer Fire Company Chief Skip Portale heads a department that is farther south and inland in Galloway Township, but the struggle to obtain enough financing is similar.
Portale said the department is waiting for the township to provide funding to replace several 25-year-old firetrucks.
"By state statute, half of what you get from the town has to be used for building maintenance and the other half has to be used to buy equipment. They give us that and we appreciate it. We use it to offset the utility bills, but it's never enough money," he said.
Local departments are also faced with complying with a new, federal mandate that their 20-year-old radios have to be upgraded, but no one knows where that money is going to come from, Portale said.
For now the department, like many across the state, will continue its coin-drop drives and fundraising efforts. The department's envelope donation return rate is now just 13 percent because people don't have the money to give, he said.
"Every year the call volume doesn't go down and the price of equipment doesn't go down. We're doing more with less. We all put in for grants and we didn't get any last year and we applied again this year and we can only hope," he said.
Contact Donna Weaver:
@DonnaKWeaver on Twitter