MADISON — “We’re at the point where we need some help,” Boone County Fire Association President Droop Howell told Boone County Commissioners during their regular session on Aug. 31.
Howell and other members of the association expressed their concerns regarding economic development initiatives that promote the county as a destination for trail riding and kayaking, while volunteer fire departments are lacking rescue equipment.
Via American Rescue Plan funding, Boone County is set to receive $4.16 million for use in what has yet to be outlined in detail to local leaders. Infrastructure and economic development have been highlighted as bold-type guidelines from the federal government.
Howell said firefighters simply want a “seat at the table,” providing the provisions for the funding encompass rescue needs under the guidelines.
“Our fire departments have absorbed about every cost we can absorb, and we’re down to not being able to absorb much more with our funding,” Howell said. “I’m sure you can see where our levy has went in the last six years. [During that time] we’ve lost about half of our funding, yet we are doing more. The Hatfield-McCoy Trail System and tourism ... and I hope it makes money for everyone and I have no problem with it, but tourism is people who don’t pay taxes here coming to our county — which is great — but they’re going to need services.”
Howell noted that the last two ATV accidents that county departments responded to were riders from North Carolina and Ohio, respectively.
Howell said rescue equipment purchased many years ago — before levy funding declined rapidly — is now either not working, obsolete or too old to meet safety standards or requirements.
Howell said that, during the water crisis and unrelated storm of 2012-13, local fire departments were able to provide shelter, food and clean water to their individual communities.
“That isn’t the case now,” he said. “We have to stay compliant as a charter fire department. That has to come first. Tires, hoses, pumps and equipment testing has to be the first priority for us.”
He added, “It will be sad if any chief has to make the decision to not have equipment for special services or not keep his department compliant, and we hope it don’t come to that.”
Howell added that volunteers are also on the front line of drug overdose-related calls and COVID-19 emergencies.
Howell referenced the lack of water-rescue equipment as organizations produce large kayaking events on local rivers and encourage visitors to explore local waters.
“Our fire departments need to be considered in the safety elements of the county’s economic development efforts,” he concluded.
Within Boone County, departments collectively have $2 million in grant applications submitted with hopes for getting a fraction of it approved for retention programs and radio upgrades.
Commission President Craig Bratcher — whose son Nick Bratcher is the fire chief at Racine — said he understood the message firefighters brought to the meeting.
“You are 100% correct,” he said. “The biggest thing right now is that we are still waiting for clarification on how we can spend this money. We can spend it, but if we don’t spend it right, we’ll be writing a check to pay it back. I definitely want to sit down with everyone and get their needs.”