Chief: Harder to keep volunteer companies running

Like so many other things in today’s world, keeping a small town’s volunteer fire department up and running is getting harder to do.

“Sometimes it seems like a losing battle,” said Mike Garbacz, the Reno Volunteer Fire Department chief.

Garbacz was talking specifically about the financing of renovations that have been undertaken recently at the fire station, but his comment was on the general trend of difficulties he and his department are facing.

A big problem, Garbacz said, is getting “the manpower,” or, in other words, a sufficient number of volunteers to answer the call to put out fires.

“When I started, you could not believe how many guys used to respond to fire calls,” Garbacz said. “We often would not have room in our vehicles for them all. Now we have trouble manning all the vehicles to put them on the road.”

“Fire companies must use mutual aid now,” Garbacz said. “We have no choice. In the past, Rocky Grove and Reno departments were both dispatched to the same scene only when the call for more help came in. Now they are dispatched together automatically in order to make sure we have the manpower for every job.”

“We need more help from somewhere. Volunteer service in these departments are dwindling down to nothing,” Garbacz said.

Garbacz gave a few reasons for this development.

“People have to work far from home more often now. Young people often have to work two to three jobs. And young people seem to have little interest in volunteer service,” he said.

Garbacz, who is 60, said the first assistant to the chief is in his mid-60s, the active day person is in his 70s, and the average age of the volunteers is in the 50s in the Reno department.

“So what it means is that people who live in these areas are getting free fire protection that is usually provided now by a very small group of people,” Garbacz said.

Skyrocketing costs of equipment is another growing burden and difficult-to-solve problem among volunteer fire departments.

“We go from one loan to another,” he said. “Prices for equipment are now astronomical.”

As an example, Garbacz said that “during the time since I joined Reno in 1977, we bought two engines. One was $50,000 and one was about $90,000. Now a used engine costs $170,000. That is how much we paid more recently for the used engine we have here.”

The chief said the department had to build up some of its equipment by assembling parts taken from more than one vehicle.

“We bought a used pick-up truck from the gas company, put an old borough police car bar light on its roof, installed some back warning lights from an old ambulance in the back, did some repainting, and then were able to use it as a truck for us. We also purchased a used ambulance at a good price, and then we replaced the chassis with a rebuilt one. We saved a lot of money that way. We’d love to get new equipment, but we can’t.”

Garbacz also said “fundraising – the kind we used to do – just can’t accomplish today what it did in the past. It no longer generates the kind of money that you need to run a fire department today.”

“It is a balancing act,” Garbacz said. “It’s a long running problem that I have been dealing with for about 10 years now. Five years from now, I don’t how we are going to keep it going.”