This past March, the Millville Volunteer Fire Company received a grant of $58,800 from the Ocean View Town Council through their Emergency Services Enhancement Funding program, for the purchase of new air packs.
“For an air pack, it’s about $5,900,” explained Cody Lockwood, MVFC vice president and rescue captain. “It’s totally equipped, with an air bottle, mask — everything we need. They’re very, very expensive, and it just wasn’t something that we could fit into our budget to buy this year. So, we were depending on the Ocean View grant to be able to purchase the air packs.”
The MVFC currently has 37 air packs, of which 11 have reached their life expectancy of 20 years.
“Anytime we need to go into a toxic air environment, the air pack is a necessity. The grant is helping us maintain the service that we provide by giving us the air packs we need,” said Lockwood. “In the past, it was fire gear we bought because we couldn’t fit it into our budget. This year, it was air packs, just because the cost would’ve been so great.”
In 2006, the Town of Ocean View created the grant to provide additional funds for emergency service providers serving the town.
“That money comes from the issuance of building permits in the town, on new construction. It’s half of 1 percent of the estimated value of the construction,” explained Lee Brubaker, finance director for the Town, “The ordinance states that the council may award to each volunteer fire service or organized provider of other emergency services in the Town of Ocean View annual grants.”
Since establishing the grant, the Town has awarded MVFC part, if not all, of the monies collected, totaling more than $250,000 since 2006.
“I can’t stress enough that, some years, without their grant — some years it just wouldn’t be possible for us to operate,” said Lockwood, adding that the grant will allow the company to purchase 10 packs.
MVFC Public Information Officer Bob Powell added that financial donations to the company are “very important” and help keep the fire and EMS services available to the public. He noted that the company also receives funding from the State, Sussex County and the Town of Millville.
“We get the Ocean View grant. We try to do some fundraisers, like the chicken dinners. There’s a State appropriation that we get, and every fire company in the state of Delaware gets a State appropriation. Then there’s some County money that comes through to us, and the Town of Millville has a grant. It’s a very small percentage of what we get. Last year it was 2 percent of our overall budget.”
Per their charter, the town council of Millville may, at their discretion, “contribute, donate or give an amount or amounts not to exceed in the total during any fiscal year three percentum, of the total taxes levied on real estate unto any volunteer fire company.”
“We greatly appreciate all that the Millville Volunteer Fire Company does for the town,” said Millville Town Manager Debbie Botchie. “The Town can give a fire department 3 percent of their levied real estate property taxes. Then we can give 3 percent to an ambulance department — the same thing: levied real estate property tax.”
According to Town Solicitor Seth Thompson, Millville would not be able to give the company more money unless it underwent a charter change.
“Even if the Town wanted to donate more money, it can’t, because it is limited by the charter,” said Thompson. “So the process to get that amended, the town council would have to pass a resolution requesting the senator and the state representative to sponsor a bill to change the charter. The donation is discretionary, but that doesn’t mean you can go above the cap, it only means you have discretion between zero and the 3 percent cap.”
Although the Town has transfer tax monies set aside for public safety, drawing the donated money from that fund is not permissible under Delaware Code.
“The town itself isn’t providing the public safety services; instead, it’s donating money to a standalone entity,” explained Thompson. “It really doesn’t matter for the purposes of the charter where the monies come from, it’s a 3 percent cap. They’re really separate issues.”
MVFC reaches out
to community for donations
Lockwood and Powell both emphasized that, while the number of calls and the cost of operations have increased, their funding has decreased.
“In 2011, we responded to 1,437 EMS calls and 382 fire calls — 1,819 calls total; 4.98 times a day on an average, we’re putting equipment and personnel on the street,” said Powell.
“To operate this firehouse for one year, it costs over a million dollars,” said Lockwood. He added that, each time a vehicle hits the street, it costs the company approximately $200.
The cost of equipment has increased over the years, as well. In 2005, the company purchased a new ambulance for $185,000. In 2011, the company purchased the same style of ambulance for $250,000. To outfit a firefighter in 2005, it cost the company $6,040, whereas today it costs $12,010.
“Things have gone up in price by a lot,” said Lockwood. “These are things we have to have on us when we go into a fire. It costs a lot of money. We’re volunteer, of course, and our funding is limited. These are the things we have to buy. We try to prioritize and buy what we have to buy with the money that we have.”
To try to offset costs, the company holds two fund drives each year, one for the ambulance side and the other for fire services.
“We mail out 1,300 fund-drive letters each year, to residents and businesses in the fire district, and only about 25 percent respond with a donation,” said Powell.
“The donations are a big part of our income,” added Lockwood. “What we get from the state is a set amount. And when the economy went down, it lessened. And it goes back and forth.
“Our donations vary. We’ve had very bad years in donations and we didn’t get much money. Then, all of a sudden we need to redo the budget, because we didn’t get as much as we thought we would,” he noted.
The fire company does not charge people to respond to a fire call, however, if a residence calls for an ambulance and has not subscribed to the ambulance service through a fund drive donation, they will be charged for the service.
“If someone gives a $50 donation to our ambulance drive, they won’t be billed,” explained Lockwood. “The average bill to be transported is around $400. So, if they donate $50, they don’t have to pay that. Some people can’t donate the full $50, and some people get very upset about it. To us, it doesn’t have to be $50 — it’s whatever they can give.”
Lockwood said that the MVFC currently has nine paid employees on the EMT side, and during the summer weekends, it adds two additional part-time employees to ensure emergency response availability.
“It is an added expense to us, but we feel it’s necessary to provide the service to the community. It’s our job to provide the service, so we do whatever we need to, to provide that service.”
“When I first joined the company in 1980, the ambulance could get out by volunteers,” said Powell. “We couldn’t do that with the number of calls we get today. This area has grown by leaps and bounds.”
In the 2011 State of Delaware Volunteer Fire Service Annual Report, conducted by Auditor of Accounts R. Thomas Wagner, it states that Delaware’s 78 volunteer fire companies saved the state approximately $251,022,309 last year alone.
The report also did a cost analysis, noting that it would cost the state an additional $284,476,751 to replace the fire services with employed services statewide.
Ocean View Town Councilwoman and Millville firefighter Michele Steffens calculated that her yearly taxes would increase significantly if fire services were not provided by volunteers.
“She said it would cost her an additional $3,100 per year in property taxes, based on the statistics supplied by Tom Wagner,” said Powell. “A $50 donation for the fire side and a $50 donation for the ambulance side — that’s a heck of a bargain.”
Both Lockwood and Powell said they are thankful for the support they receive from the community for their needed service and hope it will continue.
“Opening up car doors because someone locked their keys in their car,” Lockwood offered as an example of services the company provides. “If there’s a propane leak, or someone’s cooking and they set smoke detectors off. If somebody smells something in their house. If there’s a fire and somebody’s trapped in their house — there’s a huge range. The ambulance can be anyone who stubbed their toe to someone who’s in cardiac arrest. The fire service is the go-to — we handle everything.”
“You want somebody to come there and help you out of a jam,” added Powell. “When someone is having an unfortunate event, we respond. We would hope that all of our residents in our fire and ambulance district would support us on our fund drives.”
For more information on the Millville Volunteer Fire Company, or to donate, visit www.millville84.com.