The five district fire departments in McLean County will be mailing requests for donations to area residents in the next few weeks.

Department officials say this is an annual effort to help raise the largest block of funds needed by the fire companies to operate. 

Fire departments in McLean County are volunteer-based. Districts are segregated by county areas and Central District Fire Chief Jimmy VanCleve, whose district covers about 40 percent of the county, said significant returns on donation requests can mean safer communities.

“It’s very imperative that we get donations because it keeps our fire services operating and our departments ready to respond,” VanCleve said. 

The Central District is McLean County’s largest. It operates on an annual $38,000 budget, more than half of which is made up of donations. An additional $8,000 comes in the form of a Kentucky Fire Commission training incentive grant, and $10,000 is contributed by the Fiscal Court. Still, most of the money the department needs for day-to-day operations and equipment upkeep is obtained by donations at the beginning of each year. 

Also, there are limits to how a fire department can spend some of those funds. For example, the training incentive grant can only be used to purchase equipment, and because it’s a grant, each department in the county has to meet certain training standards in order to receive it.

Fire departments are expensive, too, VanCleve said, and McLean County operates five. There are more than a million dollars in assets at a fire station, and volunteers who use them need to be well-equipped at a moment’s notice in the event of an emergency. Ensuring that kind of reliability, he said, takes a lot of money.

On Monday night, volunteers at the Central District fire station met to try on turnout equipment from a new vendor. It’s the heavy protective ensemble that firefighters wear when they respond to fire-rescue calls. As volunteers donned thick pants and heavy fire-suppression coats, VanCleve pointed out just how expensive protecting a fire volunteer can be.

The apparel can cost upward of $2,300 per person, he said, and that doesn’t count hundreds of dollars in radio equipment and another few thousand dollars for mobile air supply. Then, he said, most of the equipment has a 10- to 15-year shelf life. And once equipment expires, he said, using it in the field is like gambling with money and lives.

“At that point, the manufacturer will no longer bear any of the liability if something happened,” he said. “You replace it or roll the dice. The bottom line is that if I send somebody in and that piece of equipment fails, and they get hurt, who’s liable?”

Larger equipment such as rescue trucks and tankers have to be replaced, too. The Central District began a sizable apparatus replacement program in 2000 that’s cost a lot of money, but has given firefighters at a district who respond to all the county’s structure fire and accident calls a big advantage.

It’s the kind of advantage, says Assistant Chief David Rickard, that’s invaluable.

“If we don’t have the funds,” he said, “we can’t function. It’s as simple as that.”

County fire departments include suggested donation rates in their postal requests. VanCleve said a single household is asked to make a minimum $30 donation to their local fire station. Farms or larger properties with multiple buildings, he said, are asked to donate $50. Businesses will be asked for $100.

“We’re going to respond whether you pay or not,” VanCleve said. “I think one of the biggest things that I instill upon my guys is (that) we’re here as public servants. The only difference between us and (other county departments) is we don’t get paid, but we are county employees and we will go and try to make a bad situation better.”

VanCleve said donating to a local fire station helps create peace of mind. It’s a way of investing in security. Last year, he said, he got about a 43 percent return in letter requests, which may not seem like that many. But in a scale of voluntary contributions, he said, it’s good.

But VanCleve’s district, like others in the county, want to grow and continue operating to meet demands. He said that’s only made possible by peoples’ willingness to give.

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