The good news is the towns were willing to donate money. The bad news is that they had to.
Like most Delaware fire companies, the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company has been struggling to live up to its name. Young volunteers have less free time and can’t afford to live at the beach, so the BBVFC has again this year requested local funding for one additional paid firefighter for the summer, from about Memorial Day to Labor Day.
This year, they needed about $28,557 total, minus about $10,100 left over from last year.
So they requested $18,368 from the four biggest entities in their district: Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island and the Sea Colony development. (It mirrors their regular ambulance program, which has fulltime staff, paid by a partnership and contributions from the four communities.)
Their requested amount was about 57 percent less than last summer, when Sea Colony and Bethany Beach made five-digit contributions but the amount needed turned out to be less than anticipated.
Requested contributions for the summer of 2017 were calculated based on the number of properties in each town:
• Bethany Beach, 39 percent, for $7,181;
• Sea Colony, 31 percent, for $5,600;
• South Bethany, 19 percent, for $3,545;
• Fenwick Island, 11 percent, for $2,057.
All four entities approved the full amount requested, but “They did make known that they are concerned about funding in the future and committing to ongoing funding without the County or State stepping in to get a recurring source of funding,” said Fire Chief Brian Martin.
Representatives of the four communities have also said they want everyone else in the fire district to pay their fair share.
All of the little beach developments along Route 1 that aren’t in the municipalities or Sea Colony are always encouraged to contribute to the ambulance service, but most don’t. Individuals in the unincorporated areas of the service district can also register for the ambulance subscription and get the same no-extra-cost ambulance service as the so-called Big Four, but not all do.
And that’s separate from the fire company funding, which is done entirely through grants and individual donations. Everyone in the fire district gets fire and ambulance service in an emergency, regardless of whether they’ve helped fund the BBVFC’s operations.
To address the larger funding problem, Martin said the Sussex County Volunteer Firefighters Association started a committee in January, with state lawmakers, fire service representatives, town representatives and County representatives.
“We’re really hoping someday in the future we can get some type of additional funding mechanism, like a tax or levy, so people in our community can help fund it,” Martin said.
“We just want to make sure that we have firefighters in our stations,” Martin said. But when taxes are involved, “It’s very political. I’ve actually been working on this for almost two years now. There’s very little forward movement because there’s red tape.”
The County would need State approval to levy a fire tax, as they do with school district funding.
But “They don’t want to appear to be raising taxes. That’s putting it in a nutshell,” said Richard Mais, Fenwick Island Town Council member and a BBVFC member.
“In order for Sussex County to take that action, it has to be approved by the state legislature, and they are getting a lot of feedback against it,” said Gardner Bunting, also a Fenwick council member and BBVFC life member.
Many Delaware transplants may assume that fire service is already included in their taxes, since many areas outside the state fund fire and ambulance services directly through taxes, and some even have a full slate of full-time paid staff. But some Delaware fire companies are afraid that assessing a tax would reduce public donations.
Right now, if everyone refused to donate, Mais said, they will have to eventually expect a slower response time as demand exceeds the fire companies’ resources. Already, firefighters have noted the difficulty of even getting to fires as quickly as they’d like in the summer, due to traffic.
South Bethany Mayor Pat Voveris said she expects some government action before next spring, when the fire company is likely to ask for funding again.
“It’s a dilemma,” Voveris said. “As I told [state Sen.] Gerald Hocker, do we have to have a house burn down? Do we have to have a tragedy?”
The public can also help.
In Fenwick, Buzz Henifin suggested it’s time “for all of us to pick up pen and paper and write to the people who make the laws” to request a more equitable system.
And the South Bethany Property Owners Association made its own $1,000 donation to the fire company.
Local fire companies are all in the same boat of needing more community support. People can learn more and volunteer by visiting their local fire company’s website.
“There’s certainly no reason for anybody to be alarmed, but we’re trying to look forward and say, ‘We’re having problems finding volunteers.’ We’re trying to get more people before there’s a big problem,” Martin said.
In 2016, the BBVFC responded to 414 total fire calls, 220 of which were from May to August. Meanwhile, its EMS responded to 847 medical calls and attended 191 fire calls, for a total of 1,050.
The paid position has worked well in helping to provide additional resources in previous summers, so they continued with the fulltime positions this summer to make up for the ongoing shortfall in volunteers.
Usually, four employees (cross-trained in fire and EMS) are already at the station 24 hours daily, two at night and two during daytime.
This third employee will be added to the nighttime shift, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The new summer position is actually staffed by a series of part-time employees, at $14.75 per hour.
“It gives us more flexibility with fire calls, and it also helps with second calls for ambulance,” Martin said.