OUR OPINION: State fire funds back rural, city responders

By NEMS Daily Journal

All of Lee County’s fire departments – including municipal departments – receive critical funding from a state fire insurance rebate program that is low visibility to the general public but helps provide support exclusively for fire departments, especially volunteer stations.
Lee County received $438,573 in a $15.3 million dispersal made this year by Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney. The money is kept in a special fund, and on dispersal is divided equally between fire departments serving unincorporated areas and municipal departments.
There’s a degree of local autonomy in dispersing funds to rural fire departments, and Lee County divides its share equally among the 17 departments, most volunteer and some with a few full-time firemen, and the share is $9,600.
Municipalities get their checks directly from the commissioner’s office, and it is apportioned based on population. Some departments that provide municipal and rural coverage get a share of both parts of the fund.
Lee County fire protection coordinator David Homan said eight municipalities in Lee County – Tupelo, Baldwyn, Guntown, Nettleton, Plantersville, Saltillo, Shannon and Verona – receive support from the city side of the ledger.
The departments serving rural areas getting help in Lee County are: Richmond, Union, South Lee, Palmetto, Nettleton, Mooreville, Birmingham Ridge,, Cedar Hill, Pratt-Friendship, Unity and Belden.
The program is important because, as Chaney explained, it helps support 13,000 unpaid volunteer firefighters statewide. If salaried, the cost to taxpayers would be about $500 million every year, Chaney said. The projection is based on a minimum salary of $30,000 plus benefits per full-time firefighter.
Chaney, who is a Tupelo native, said the rebate fund has helped save insurance consumers an estimated $750 million since 1995 because it helps improve fire coverage. Chaney said some legislators would like to raid the rebate fund for general legislative program spending but cautioned that it would damage fire protection statewide.
It is noteworthy that even with urban growth in Mississippi and elsewhere, in 2008 federal Department of Labor reports show 70 percent of fire companies were staffed entirely by volunteer firefighters in 2007. Total paid employment in fire fighting occupations was about 365,600.
The importance of maintaining strongly staffed paid and volunteer departments is found in nationwide statistics:
In 2009, there were 1,348,500 fires reported in the United States, causing 3,010 civilian deaths.
A fire department responds to a fire every 23 seconds.