How does a volunteer department financially survive?

Do fish frys’ and bake sales actually produce enough money to run a department? How do our local volunteer fire departments stay afloat financially? Well, Chief Atkinson and Treasurer Shelly Watson give us a great insight into how our own volunteer department, Devine Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department (DVFD), actually gets the money they need to operate.
First and foremost, YES fundraisers and donations are VITAL to the operation of a volunteer fire department. Right now the DVFD has an operating budget of close to $200,000 for the year. In 2020 $25,000 of that was via donations, fundraisers, generosity of the community, and grants. The other $175,000 came from taxpayer funds through the Emergency Services District 2 (ESD2). Is $200,000 enough to run a department with a coverage radius of over 130-square miles?

Here was Chief Atkinson’s answer, “I think when we ask if that’s enough, we need some perspective. We have made that budget work; we have been able to increase our coverage and abilities with those funds. However, the more we have the more we can do for the community. For a department with our response size and population, we are on the low side of a budget; there are departments our size that have $800,000 yearly budgets. The reality is we want to keep tax rates low, and yet still provide the best possible care for our community. So, we find other ways to offset or generate revenue.”
So, do you bill for services?
“We do have limited billing. Meaning we ONLY bill insurance companies, and only those who are from outside our tax district. Typically it is for traffic accidents for drivers who are not from the ESD2 area. We do this to supplement the use of tax dollars on incidents that our tax base should not be responsible for. For instance, the large trucking companies who get in accidents on I-35 and use our tax dollars to clean up their mess that takes away from income we could use to protect our community they need to replenish those funds for our district.”
Chief Atkinson continued with, “We do not bill for medical runs at all, we do our best to not bill those in our district, and we only bill insurance companies, never individuals. Most fire calls, EMS, or carbon monoxide calls never get a bill.”
What other ways do you supplement the financial burden of protecting our community?
Chief Atkinson responded “Grants, we have a member whose sole job it is to get us grants. Henry Salas is our grant writer and he is continuously seeking outside money to help offset the cost of training or equipment that we need to protect this community.”
How often do you operate outside of your budget?
“In the past five years we have averaged right around that $200,000, mainly because we simply do not have other funds to go over. Unless a grant comes in or we get a large donation, what we have is what we have. That is one of the reasons we started billing for outside calls. I have put together a budget for this year that is about $220,000, part of that is because of some major grants we have been awarded, and partially because of the new billing system. With these things in place we have been able to start responding to more medical calls assisting our community, and purchased some much needed training and EMS equipment. The EMS side of what we are doing is a prime example of why we started billing, we do not charge our citizens for these new medical calls, but the expense we endure is being offset by billing those who are not from our district for the services they, in the past, had gotten for free. Taking away valuable resources from our community.”
So back to the main question, do fish fry’s and donations really help?
“Absolutely, again even with the new billing, the help we receive from the community goes 100% back into the services provided. The more we have the more we can do. Our staff is 100% volunteer from the Chief down to the new cadet, we are from Devine, our kids go to school here, we own homes here, we shop here, and we pay taxes here. So, we do not want to raise the tax rate any more than anyone else does. The reality is providing these services cost money, a fire engine is in the $600,000 to $800,000 range, gas meters are $1,500 a piece, bunker gear is $3,000 a set, so, any help we can get from the community absolutely helps us provide more quality and efficient services to the community. ”
Shelly Watson added, “It costs quite a bit of money to keep this department running and without the cost recovery system we would have to cut back somewhere which would directly affect the amount and quality of assistance we would be able to provide.”

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Addition Q & A on this topic.
So when you bill my insurance, and my deductible is $1500, what happens?
If they passed the bill on to you, you could literally throw it in the trash, because we don’t pursue those bills. We do not report to any credit companies and we do not come after non-payment.
So you mainly bill for assistance with wrecks, but what about fires out of district? Do you bill for mutual aide fires?
We bill mainly on car wrecks, hazmat spills, and out of district fires that are not mutual aid (fires that other departments are toned to and do not respond, so they tone us out to leave district) not mutual aid calls where we go to assist another department.
To give you an idea on how rarely we actually bill, this year we have 367 calls for service, we have only generated a bill on 36 of those, only 7 have been paid. If someone doesn’t have insurance, if they are found to live in the district, if the insurance just refuses to pay that’s where it stops. Out of those 7 collects, we have generated about $12,000 for our district. All from folks who used ESD2 money and yet did not live here. That $12,000 has paid for the medical response vehicle that has allowed us to provide needed medical response to our community (something we do not bill for). Again this is to make the money we do have in this district stretch further. It is only one of the ways we generate income along with grants and fundraising.
Press Release
By Devine Fire Department