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Volunteer fire departments contemplate charging residents

An unexpected increase in radio fees could lead the Sulphur Springs Volunteer Fire Department to turn off six of its units and begin charging for services.
Chief Keith Ellis expressed his concern during the April 9 meeting of the Washington County Public Safety Committee.
“Does anybody know the reason (for the increase), and will additional increases be expected?” he asked.
The annual cost per radio is $360. Ellis said he was notified of the higher rate through a last-minute email from the City of Johnson City. “We’re going to have to shut off five or six radios because of the increase,” he said.
The loss of communication could impact the SSVFD services, according to Ellis.
“Case in point, Trailblazer Market caught on fire the other night, and somebody had to call and confirm (it was burning),” he said. “Those minutes make a difference.”
Assistant Chief Bruce Brocklebank asked committee members for help in receiving additional funds for their budget from the county commission. “(The way it is now,) we’re professional fundraisers, not firefighters,” he said. “We need to spend Saturdays training, not running a dinner.”
Commissioner Mike Ford said the commission also had no knowledge the rate was changing. County Attorney John Rambo said he would check on whether a public notice is required to be issued when an increase is planned.
Commissioner Pete Speropulos praised SSVFD members for their response to the Trailblazer Market. “The loss was minimal compared to what it could have been, and I commend you on the job you did,” he said.
Speropulos, an insurance provider, also offered an idea for funding. “More and more, I see bills from volunteer fire departments coming across my desk,” he said.
Rambo confirmed it would be legal for SSVFD to begin charging for services, and said the county might be able to assist with the billing.
Those offers did not receive overwhelming support. “I think they might pay a $20 bill where they would give us $50 at a fundraiser,” Ellis said.
Brocklebank was worried about increased expectations. “If we start doing that, (residents) will expect 24/7 service,” he said. “If they call the station and no one is there, and it takes us 15 minutes, that will come back on us.”
Rambo plans to look into what other volunteer fire departments are doing and report back to the committee. “It’s something we don’t want to jump into for all the reasons you’ve listed, but it may have merit,” he said.