Jun. 12—Cleveland County's rural fire departments are seeing the benefits of a public safety sales tax that has allowed them to update and purchase much-needed fire and medical equipment.
In November 2019, county voters approved an eighth-cent sales tax lasting 20 years, part of which covers critical safety needs for fire departments that have trouble with funding. So far, 22 grant requests totaling $550,633 have been funded for firefighting and life-saving emergency services equipment.
"Particularly the rural fire departments haven't had a means of really funding their operations to the extent that it helps their safety and equipment maintenance. They were interested in getting on board with the PSST to see if they could get some additional funding for things that they needed," said Commissioner Harold Haralson, who served as an organizer for the PSST vote.
The tax passed just before a quarter-cent tax funding the county jail expired. Haralson said some entities approved an additional eighth-cent tax for other services, but the unincorporated areas in the county now pay less.
The tax allows up to $500,000 to go toward fire departments and $100,000 toward emergency service needs.
In October, county fire chiefs started meeting with a board monthly to discuss needs across the county. The board then votes on which projects to send to the commissioners that month for approval.
Haralson said once needs are identified, commissioners can usually respond pretty quickly. Funds are distributed based on each fiscal year, which starts July 1 and ends June 30.
"It is outstanding. It is something that has saved a small department like us," Cedar Country Fire Chief Darren Alexander said. "The PSST Fund has made a big difference for our department."
Alexander said the PSST funds have been a godsend for the small department, which has two stations and 18 volunteers.
Cedar Country's grant funding went toward multiple purchases, including an extractor and a dryer cabinet. Extractors wash fire gear with low water and high spin rates to extract cancer-causing carcinogens, while dryer cabinets allow firefighters to more quickly dry their gear, Alexander said. Without a dryer, gear could take at least a day to hang dry.
The grant funding also let the department replace its extraction tools, including battery-operated spreaders and cutters. While the old gear was hydraulic and built in the 90s, the new tools are lighter and more mobile, with the ability to cut past 180 degrees, Alexander said.
"It has absolutely made a huge difference just in the year that we've been allowed to draw from it," he said about the PSST fund. "Anyone who voted on that, we absolutely appreciate that."
In Little Axe, the grant allowed the fire department to buy a new Dodge Ram utility vehicle with a camper shell, emergency lighting and a radio. Little Axe Fire Chief Keith Shykes said the new vehicle means he doesn't have to use his personal 2006 truck on fire calls.
He also said the department, which has 21 volunteers, now has traffic safety equipment to protect firefighters who assist at wreck scenes, along with wildland and rescue call gear.
The department primarily responds to wildland calls, and uses the gear hard and often, he said.
"This PSST has been a total game changer for how we're able to do business," Shykes said. "It has enabled us to move things on our strategic plan way, way up the list. Things that were five-to-10 year items we're able to purchase now. Basically, our normal income supports operations throughout the year, but it doesn't account for replacing equipment, getting new equipment, enhancing/increasing our capabilities."
Lexington Fire Department Chief Max Punneo said if the PSST money wasn't available, his department wouldn't have been able to afford two used engines and pumpers. The engines Lexington purchased with its grant funding allowed the department to replace a 1989 model and place a 1995 one on reserve.
Before the department, which has 20 volunteers, received an extractor and dryer from grant money, it had to use extractors and dryers at nearby fire departments, Punneo said.
"Everybody's happy. Getting new equipment betters your whole department. It helps out everybody, plus it also helps out your citizens," Punneo said, adding that many of the county fire departments work together via mutual aid and often train together.
Noble Fire Chief Phil Scott said his department benefited doubly from the grant money. In Noble, emergency services run out of the fire department, and Scott received funds that support both services.
The department staffs 13 full-time firefighters and 11 volunteers, and offers medical aid for the Slaughterville and Cedar Country fire districts.
Noble was able to purchase video laryngoscopes, annual subscriptions for remote view for Zoll heart monitors and manual monitors and defibrillators, among other supplies.
Scott said the laryngoscopes, used to place tracheal tubes, are equipped with cameras, and the heart monitors are replacing models manufactured in 2009 that were not working correctly. The majority of Noble's calls are medical, he said.
"This is going to help us help them. I commend the county for passing this tax. It's really been a great thing," Scott said. "It's buying us equipment that — I don't know what we would be doing. ... this is something we have to have [for patients]."
Jamie Berry covers police and court news for The Transcript. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 366-3532 or @JamieStitches13.