State program to help volunteer fire departments

Robert Houk • May 1, 2019 at 7:37 PM

Legislation to lend a funding hand to local volunteer firefighters has cleared the Tennessee General Assembly.

A bill to help volunteer fire departments pay for training and to cover matching federal grants for capital needs was approved by the House on Monday. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, said it creates a program to be managed by the commissioner of the state Department of Commerce and Insurance to award grants to VFDs to purchase equipment or to meet the 10% local match requirements for federal grants.

The money would cover local funding needed to secure firefighting grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Tennessee currently receives $7.8 million in such grants annually from FEMA, with 32.5% going to volunteer fire departments.

“Many of our rural communities rely on volunteer firefighters to protect them from all forms of harm,” Hill said in a news release. “House Bill 518 will establish a state-funded grant program to ensure our local heroes have the proper equipment and necessary training to protect their neighbors.

“This is the first program of its kind and will finally find a way to help our heroes.”

Hill also told the Johnson CIty Press earlier this year the bill’s “end result would be increased training and equipment for the 524 VFDs across the state at no local cost.”

The companion bill, SB1395 sponsored by state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, was passed on first reading on Wednesday. The legislation was amended to direct the commerce commissioner to decide “which grants to award and disburse the grants to selected volunteer fire departments.”

As amended, the bill says: “The total amount of grants awarded each year must be equally divided among the Grand Divisions of the state.”

The legislation also says the commissioner “shall endeavor to expend all funds appropriated to the program each year.” Unspent funds will not go back to the general fund, but instead would be applied to the program in the next fiscal year.

Most volunteer fire departments now rely on community and local government donations to fund their equipment and training needs. Thomas Driggers,who has served at the West Carter County Volunteer Fire Department since September, said the state program will be helpful.

“Better funding means we can do a better job,” Driggers said Wednesday.

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