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.
Gov. Kristi Noem signed a bill into law last week that will provide $5 million for volunteer fire departments to purchase safety equipment.
The bill allocates 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.
Debate over the bill was heated from both sides of the funding issue. Steve Willard is the director of Joint Fire Council, which represents volunteer and professional firefighters across the state. Willard told a committee that around 30% of volunteer funding comes from public events. “For ’20 and ’21, they didn’t have many of those,” Willard said.
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.
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.
Lawmakers spoke to the importance of the volunteer fire service, but they also had questions. Sen. David Johnson, R-Rapid City, is the chair of a volunteer fire board. He ultimately voted for the grant funding, but voiced concerns. “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.”
South Dakota has over 300 fire departments that are 100 percent volunteer staffed. To be considered a certified volunteer fire department in the state of South Dakota, 15 people must be volunteers at that department.
Jerome Harvey, fire administrator for Rapid City says on average, it takes around $6,000 to supply one firefighter with personal protective equipment, and this bill would supply each firefighter with around $500 worth of protective equipment.
“The ability to protect those people, to help fund what’s going on, you’re either going have to figure out how to fund that or you’ll end up paying more to fund everything. Is it a step in the right direction? Yes. Is it a good thing? Yes, as far as realizing its baby steps to help address the over all problem,” Harvey said.
Harvey said that if the state wants to keep this program in place, they will have to come up with a plan to include this in their regular funding cycles to continue helping volunteer fire departments.