PIERRE — Most of South Dakota’s land area is protected by firefighters who don’t get paid for their work. Most of the fire departments they work for aren’t government entities.
That means the fundraising reality of the state’s largely volunteer fire force is one of charity drives, fill-the-boot dances, chili feeds and direct mail solicitation.
Many of those efforts were stymied for about two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A bill meant to help fill that funding gap with $5 million in state grant funding for jackets, boots, helmets and other gear is now on Gov. Kristi Noem’s desk.
House Bill 1127 would allocate the money to the South Dakota Firefighters Association, which represents 279 of the 334 fire departments in the state, and would decide how to divvy up the money. Only five departments – in Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Aberdeen, Watertown and Huron – employ paid professionals. The remainder are volunteer.
That includes the Aberdeen Rural Fire Department and dozens more in northeastern South Dakota.
Some volunteer fire departments don’t have enough basic equipment
Rep. Kevin Jenson, R-Canton, brought HB 1127 in part because of his son’s experience as a volunteer firefighter in Wyoming. The department didn’t have enough gear for him to get started.
“His mom and I actually had to buy him boots because he didn’t have boots that fit him,” Jensen told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday.
In ensuing conversations with volunteer fire leaders in South Dakota, Jensen learned about the fundraising troubles wrought by COVID-19. It costs between $8,000 and $13,000 to outfit a firefighter, Jensen said, and the donors in the small towns and counties served by volunteers were stretched thin.
“You can only hold so many pancake feeds,” Jensen said.
Steve Willard is the director of Joint Fire Council, which represents volunteer and professional firefighters across the state. Willard told the committee that around 30% of volunteer funding comes from public events.
“For ’20 and ’21, they didn’t have many of those,” Willard said.
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Jensen and Willard said as many as half of the state’s departments are now working with personal protective equipment that’s past its useful life, and that one-time grant funding, disbursed over four years, would help alleviate the financial pressure.
Not all are on board with extra money for volunteer fire departments
Brandy Miesner of the Bureau of Finance and Management opposed the measure. She told lawmakers that the state Department of Public Safety already has $330,000 in annual grant funding for volunteer departments, and that handing the money to the fire association without more specific guidance on where to send it could be a concern for auditors.
“There’s no guarantee that the departments that have the greatest needs would be the ones that get the funding,” Miesner said.
During committee discussion each spoke to the importance of the volunteer fire service, but they also had questions. Sen. David Johnson, R-Rapid City, is the chairman of a volunteer fire board. He ultimately voted for the grant funding, but his concerns echoed those of Miesner.
“I’m leery of this,” Johnson said. “What I’m afraid of is that the grant money is going to be handed out based on who was at the bowling alley last night.”
Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, wondered aloud if fire departments might return to the Legislature to ask for more money every five or 10 years.
Sen. John Wiik, R-Big Stone City, announced early in committee discussion that he wouldn’t support the idea. Volunteer departments have managed for decades without state government aid, he said, citing his father’s work for the Big Stone department.
“I think that there are better uses of general fund dollars than this, because firefighters have figured it out,” Wiik said.
Jensen and Willard both stressed that the funding is only meant to address COVID-related funding shortfalls. Willard said the four-year time frame for rulemaking and grant disbursal would serve to ensure that the funding goes where it’s most needed.
Another volunteer firefighter on the committee, Dean Wink, R-Howes, said the bill speaks to an important issue for the state’s first responders.
“At the very least, we should equip them to protect themselves when they get into a sticky situation so they have what they need,” Wink said.
The bill passed out of committee on a 5-3 vote and has since been approved by the full Senate. Now, it’s up to Noem.
Sen. Brian Breitling, R-Miller, voted in favor of the measure in committee and again on the Senate floor. Sens. Al Novstrup, R-Aberdeen, and Michael Rohl, R-Aberdeen, also voted in favor as the measure easily cleared the Senate 32-2.
On the House side, the vote was 69-0 in favor with five of six Aberdeen area lawmakers voting in favor. They included Carl Perry, R-Aberdeen; Brandei Schaefbauer, R-Aberdeen; Scott Moore, R-Ipswich; Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton; and Joe Donnell, R-Sisseton. Rep. James Wangsness, R-Miller, was excused from the vote.
Scott Waltman of the Aberdeen Insider contributed to this report.