Dominion grant project helps fire departments around the region

Published 12:23 am Saturday, March 23, 2024

It’s not cheap to outfit a firefighter with turnout gear. For just one set, you’re looking at more than $5,000. And currently, there’s a push for all departments to provide at least two sets of gear for every firefighter. It’s not that they don’t want to do it, but as Walt Bailey, president of the Virginia Firefighters Association, points out, the money just isn’t there, especially for rural fire departments in places like Prince Edward and Cumberland counties. 

“Fifty years ago, we didn’t have all the carcinogens and building materials that we have now,” Bailey said  “But our departments across the state are struggling just to outfit one person, let alone to outfit everybody.” 

And departments need to provide new sets of turnout gear at least every 10 years, Bailey added, with all the new toxins they deal with on a daily basis. By having a second set of gear, the one can get washed and still have a dry set ready to answer the next call. And the challenge for many of our local departments is a looming threat, with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration looking to come in and regulate departments. That means requiring departments to have a certain number of gear for each firefighter, to have it updated by a certain time, etc. 

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“On the one side, it forces the departments to provide the best equipment,” Bailey said. “But on the other side, just like we said before, we just don’t have the funds to do what’s necessary to get it done.” 

Not something easily fixed

This isn’t a problem that can just be fixed by a simple vote. In addition to his statewide role, Bailey serves on the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors and is in his 41st year as chief of the Phenix Volunteer Fire Department. He’s looked at the situation from a variety of angles and it’s impossible for local communities to fix the funding gap, without a significant change. 

“Our funding, as far as what we can do (as a county) is very limited, without a tax increase on citizens,” Bailey said. 

That’s where a new partnership with Dominion Energy is helping out . The company has set up a grant program, providing the Firefighters Association with the funding to give out up to $2,500 per project. Last year alone, 22 grants were handed out. Now, thanks to a $75,000 donation given by Dominion on Thursday, March 14, the number of grants available can significantly expand. 

“You may not think that’s a lot of money, but for departments whose total budget in a year may be $15,000 to $18,000, that’s almost 10% of their budget,” Bailey said. 

Fire departments look to volunteers

It’s a challenge right now, Bailey said, for departments to handle the number of calls they deal with. That goes for everything from the March 11 building fire in Farmville to a variety of wildfires and car accidents. And the majority of those responding, both here in Prince Edward County and across the commonwealth, are volunteers.

“You have to understand, 70% of the state of Virginia is covered by volunteers,” Bailey said. “After COVID hit, it nearly destroyed the volunteer fire service and EMS service in Virginia. Our volunteers dropped from over 100,000 to now around 13,000 in the state. That’s almost an 80% drop in volunteers. So the burden that’s put on these people is immense. Not only do these guys have to run calls, they have to train, have to take care of equipment, and mostly they have to fundraise. This grant program will help take some of that last burden off.” 

How does it work? 

Now to be clear, fire departments can’t just walk up and ask for money. First, you need to be a member of the Firefighters Association. Second, your department has to apply for the money, explaining what it will be used for. 

And the third part is something each of our departments is already doing. Dominion just requires that in exchange for the grant, the department does some programs in their respective communities. 

Bailey said the association has appreciated everything Dominion has done to help. He’s also hoping other groups follow suit.

“I’m hoping the other power companies see the things Dominion is doing and may follow their lead in helping us out,” Bailey said.