The cost to save lives: Firefighters struggle to afford new gear

Local News

They answer the call when your life needs saving, but is aging equiptment putting their own lives at risk?  In our region, smaller fire departments struggle to afford new gear.

Firefighter John “Peeker” Heffernan volunteers with the Bristol Fire Department.

“My father was a firefighter, uncle was a firefighter and it’s the same for a lot of people here,” says Heffernan.  “It’s been a generational thing.”

Times have changed drastically since he started 29 years ago.  Heffernan says firefighters, especially from smaller, rural departments, are struggling to keep up with an increasing price tag to replace outdated gear.

“The standards have changed and the life of gear is seven years now for an interior firefighter, so every seven years, that gear has to be changed,” Heffernan explains.  “The NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) changes the standard for safety reasons.”

Airpacks, or SCBA units, go through standard changes too.

“Our airpacks went from hook-on pass alarm to integrated pass alarm, which goes off when you experience too much heat, or you stop moving so you can be found,” says Heffernan.

The price to keep up with these ever-changing standards is steep.  To replace everything that goes along with an SCBA unit, the frame, the cylinder, and the mask costs roughly $8,000.

Bristol Fire Chief Brett Larose has just applied for an Assistance to Firefighters Grant for $140,000 to help replace 17 units, 18 cylinders, and 22 masks.

“We have applied for the AFG grant over the years and have not been successful, but this year, we took advantage of a grant writer,” says Larose.  “It’s a challenge for these smaller communities because we’re all strapped and we’re all struggling to make ends meet.”

The department is currently down two SCBA units due to age.  Both Larose and Heffernan agree the grant process can be more of a burden than a benefit.

“They’re very specific about what they want and if you don’t follow the narrative, or if the narrative isn’t the way they want it, it gets rejected,” says Heffernan.  “A department that’s shy on resources to begin with probably doesn’t have the money to get a grant writer, or someone to help that fills that out so you’re successful.”

“To keep up with training requirements today and ask volunteers to do all this fundraising to buy a piece of equiptment that they need to do their job, that’s tough,” Larose adds.

Local 22/Local 44 Morning Anchor Megan Carpenter brought this concern to Senator Bernie Sanders’ office.  His office provider her with the following statement.  It reads, in part:

“Senator Sanders understands that rural and low-income towns simply can’t afford the cost of upgrading critically important equipment, and he has long advocated for increased funding for the federal programs that provide assistance to both career and volunteer fire departments.”

“Our office – in coordination with Senator Leahy’s and Representative Welch’s offices – helps disseminate information about these grant programs to Vermont fire departments and EMS agencies.  We also let those agencies know when FEMA is holding workshops or webinars on applying, and we regularly write letters to FEMA in support of applications submitted from Vermont.”

Despite constantly changing standards and an ever-increasing dollar amount, Chief Larose wants to assure his community members they’re safe in his hands.

“As long as these SCBA units continue to pass an annual flow test, we can still use them,” says Larose.  “We’re fortunate too that our taxpayers have supported our budget every year.”

Larose says the AFG grant will fund 95% of the cost to replace the SCBA units.  Taxpayers will foot the other 5%.  Larose says if the grant request is denied again, his department will have enough money set aside in its capital budget for 2020 to replace them.  The total cost is $165,000.

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