Analysis: Miss. fire truck program could extend

By Jack Elliot Jr./The Associated Press

There’s no such thing as too much fire protection for a rural state such as Mississippi, says Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney.

Chaney was among dozens of co-sponsors on a 1995 bill that created the Rural Fire Truck Acquisition Assistance Program. Now, as state insurance commissioner, Chaney oversees the program.

Heading into its 16th year, the program has placed hundreds of fire trucks into rural Mississippi communities. The program has worked so well — and is so politically popular — that Mississippi lawmakers have sent Gov. Haley Barbour a bill extending it for another year.

“It is an extremely popular program that has not only saved lives and property but also provided the best equipment to our 13,000-plus volunteer firefighters in the state,” Chaney said.

“In return we have been able to keep insurance rates low and stable in our rural areas,” he said.

The bill does not authorize any money, but lawmakers have recommended $2.3 million for the fire truck program in the Insurance Department budget in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Final approval is pending but legislative leaders say funding for the program is secure.

Sen. Perry Lee, R-Mendenhall, the lead senator on the reauthorization bill, said lawmakers know the value of the program to areas outside the city limits and to small municipalities.

“We’re putting a lot of fire protection in rural communities that had never had it before,” said Lee, who was a volunteer firefighter for 25 years.

“A house fire is the closest thing to a death in a family and it deeply affects the lives of a family to lose a home and property.

“Putting good equipment in the hands of these volunteer fire departments — and most of the money goes to the volunteer fire departments — protects the lives and property of the public and protects the lives of the firefighters, too,” Lee said.

The investment, say supporters, has generated more local participation. Where the state grants don’t meet a need, rural areas have found local money — or a federal government — to fill in the gaps.

The program provides counties with grants of $50,000 per fire truck for the first six trucks and $70,000 each for next four vehicles. Counties also can apply for trucks on behalf of cities with which they have a contract to provide fire protection within a five-mile area of the municipal limits.

Department of Insurance figures show the state has invested $31 million in the rural fire truck programs. The money has bought 566 new trucks.

Chaney said homeowners have saved an estimated $50 million a year on insurance premiums.

Chaney said his office has requests for 90 trucks, some of which would replace aging tankers a few counties acquired as surplus from the Mississippi Forestry Commission.

Chaney said the program has created more public awareness of rural fire protection. That, he said, has prompted many rural areas to build more fire stations, creating more of a need for trucks.

He said 2009 figures show there were 638 all-volunteer fire departments operating 206 substations. Overall, there are 757 fire departments with 471 substations.

Former House Insurance Committee chairwoman Mary Ann Stevens, D-West, said the program has had broad legislative support.

“Our goal when we started out was to put a fire truck in every supervisors’ district,” said Stevens.

Backers say the program has also served to encourage boards of supervisors to get involved in fire protection when in the past they weren’t. In that way, the program has done more than just put a fire truck in a county; it has gotten more people involved in their local fire departments.